Parenting

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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Sometimes I Pretend My Kids Aren’t Mine…

We’re on the way home from the store. R, at seventeen months, is adamant that he can pull a wagon full of groceries by himself, and stubbornly asserts his independence with loud growls whenever we try to assist him, even though he simply doesn’t have the strength for this task to be smooth or anywhere close to efficient. A, at three, is getting cranky just ahead of lunch time, and is behaving as such – there’s a good deal of whining and impatience when our full attention is not his, and he can’t seem to decide whether he wants to race us down the sidewalk or be carried. I can hear the strain in my husband’s voice as he cajoles R to stay on the sidewalk with his heavy load, and the sharpness rising in my own as I tell A to stop cutting me off and nearly tripping me as an effort to win the newest race he hasn’t told me we’re having.

I feel so defeated in moments like these. It seems we can be going along, having a great time as a family, gathering produce in the store, talking to fellow passerby on the street, laughing and talking about things we see, my partner and I marvelling at our lovely kiddos, and then, suddenly, it’s like a switch is flipped. We’re abrupt, impatient, and short. Where once we saw charm and adorableness, we now feel irritation and helplessness to just fucking get a move on already.

Well, I came across a new trick this particular morning, and it’s so simple, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I picked Arlo up out of frustration, but as soon as I started carrying him, I started thinking of him as someone else’s kid. Not a stranger, but a tiny person I know and love who just isn’t… well, mine. I imagined how differently I would react to his whining, his incessant attention-seeking, and his fatigue if he were my little nephew, or my friend’s daughter, or any of the other littles I’ve welcomed into my home on numerous playdates, and whom I love interacting with.

Suddenly, I had more patience for my own sons, when I realized I would treat my friends’ children differently in the same situation. I kept trying to view my boys in this light for the rest of that day, whenever I felt myself getting irked with them. And it WORKED. I didn’t capitulate to whining, or change my decisions, but I was somehow more patient, a little softer, and more resourceful in seeing things from their perspective and offering distraction, instead of just feeling like I had to put my foot DOWN because it’s time to do WHAT I SAID, DAMMIT!

In some ways, the fact that this trick works really bothers me. Shouldn’t I be MORE patient, kind, and loving with my own children than with anyone else?? I love them more than I thought possible, so shouldn’t my behaviour reflect that?? There’s a little twinge of mom-guilt there, that presumes I have to pretend my kids are someone else’s in order for me to be on my ‘good behaviour’ with them… and that feels rather shitty.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just a normal sign that we are really becoming solidified as a family – kids included. It seems pretty common for human beings to ‘let themselves go’ with those they are closest to, to allow only their very inner circle to witness their moments of weakness, their cracks and flaws, and rely on their goodwill and unconditional love to help fill those cracks in again when they’ve broken. I’m not saying this is a good dynamic to be in with my kids, but maybe my ‘lesser’ behaviour, my moments of weakness and crankiness and sharpness, stem from feeling close to them, rather than not loving them enough.

Wherever it comes from, though, I’m just happy I’ve found something that can help jump-start me out of a grump with my kiddos, ’cause those funks can be really tough to get out of. I want to be a good mom to them more than I want most things in life, so even if it takes pretending from time to time that they’re not mine, I’ll do it. I just won’t let them know that’s the reason 😉

Go the f*ck to sleep, my sweet little angel monster

Let me set the scene: a mother sits on the couch, sobbing while she holds her screaming baby for what seems like hour number 74, even though it’s only 2pm. Amidst her crying there’s “I’m so sorry”, “Oh my God, go to sleep!”, “Why are you so cute?” and “I love you so much”. It’s a normal day and it’s completely insane.

Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure this has been every parent at some point in the first year of their child’s life, (or at least that’s what I’m telling myself these days). This has definitely been me. It was me yesterday…and the day before.

Yes, this is where I’m at these days, mamas. Serving at the whims of an adorable little tyrant who WILL. NOT. SLEEP. I consider myself a fairly patient person, but this test is next level. Continue reading

Another Birth Story

Hey Mamas! Long time, no see. This time, though, there’s a pretty good reason for my little hiatus: he’s here!

That’s right, our second son arrived 12 weeks ago, just over 38 weeks into my pregnancy. Little J is small – he was just over 6 pounds three weeks after birth and is still not on the growth chart – but he’s doing well. He’s cooing and smiling and doing all the things little nuggets his age tend to do.  And so, I have finally found the time to emerge from deep in the newborn forest to share my experience of his birth. Continue reading

What’s with the “Best Friend” Obsession?

My toddler has recently discovered the idea of “best friends.” I’m pretty sure he learned it from Thomas the Tank Engine, as I first noticed him referring to Thomas as “Percy’s best friend” and vice versa when narrating his own play. The Thomas videos and books he knows use this description for the two engines. He then expanded this concept to other toys, talking about “Gordon’s best friend James,” and telling me that “Marshall is Chase’s best friend, Mommy!” When he referred baby brother R as “my best friend,” my heart melted.

As cute as it is, it gets me thinking about why, as parents and adults generally, we encourage the idea of “best friends” so strongly in our kids. Continue reading

Kudos to the Pre-Tech Moms

Much is made of the negative sides of the internet and smartphones in the parenting world. Mothers of previous generations have consistently told me they do not at all envy us younger women when it comes to figuring out how to do this parenting gig. They look at all the information that we have available to us on the web, and surmise that it’s no wonder we are so stressed about getting things”right.” They express gratitude that all they had to deal with was the sometimes conflicting advice of their immediate circle of family and friends, as well as a few parenting books, instead of the opinions of the global population of the interwebs. They shake their heads at the high expectations arising alongside social media imagery that tells us we can, and therefore should, be able to attain perfection as mother, crafter, party-thrower, cook, housekeeper, organizer, and professional.

But I’d like to throw my own head shake, along with some hefty kudos, back to my foremothers today. Because for all the bad rap that technology gets for its dominance over our lives, it is also sometimes my savior of a day.

Kudos to the moms who did this without cell phones. What did you do when you were, as I assume everybody has been since the invention of clocks, running really late with an infant to meet a friend who also had a baby? Did they just wait around forever, or did you finally show up at your agreed-upon place only to discover your friend had, quite reasonably, left an hour before? (I refuse to believe that you were just always on time.)

Kudos to the moms who did this without Netflix or podcasts. Being able to tune into an episode of One Bad Mother, or binge-watch West Wing or The Crown, have been key to my sanity while in a stretch of waking up at 5 a.m. every morning with a tiny baby who thinks that’s an appropriate time to start the day. I think I would have gone crazy if I was left with only the entertainment TV and radio stations deemed fit for air at that hour.

Most importantly, kudos to the moms who did this without having friends in a little box in their back pocket. I don’t know what I would do without having my friends accessible at the touch of a button, even in the midst of winter when none of us want to go out of the house, even while a little one is too sick and we don’t want to risk passing the germs around, even in the middle of the night when I’ve felt frustrated and ineffectual. Many instances of loneliness and self-doubt have been alleviated by an encouraging text, a humourous retort to my baby’s inconvenient behaviour, a photo that confirms no one else really has it all together either, or even just a string of messages with content that doesn’t seem in the least bit important. On some days, those “insignificant” conversations have been essential for keeping this mom grounded in the world outside her house.

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I love knowing what these women get up to during 3am wakings

I know, I know, if we lived in a time before these technologies, we would be able to do without them as well. But this is neither here nor there. Today, I want to give kudos to my heroines of the past, who did all we do, and sometimes a hell of a lot more, without these little electronic boxes that connect me to my village.

Looking Forward to Mat Leave the Second Time Around

Happy Valentine’s Day, mamas! I hope you’re all enjoying a day filled with love from your little ones and maybe even a bit of grown-up love time.

In our house, we have officially reached the baby-could-come-anytime countdown. And like pretty much every Mom I know, I am simultaneously completely ready to be done with pregnancy and frantically trying to accomplish as much as possible before the little nugget arrives and I am newborn-bound. Given that this will be my second maternity leave, I also find myself reflecting on my hopes and expectations for what lies ahead.

I should start by saying that I am extremely fortunate. Living in Canada means that I am entitled to a full year off with the baby, and with my workplace benefits, I can afford to do that. This will allow me time and space to truly step away from work and focus my attention on my little one and my family. I know very well that this is not something everyone in North America enjoys, and I am grateful.

At the same time, I know from my experience with my last maternity leave that so much time away from the routine of work and adult time can be deeply isolating. And for someone like me – who thrives on checking off to-do lists – the need to feel like you’re getting things done can be hard to fulfill when your day is largely dictated by a tiny human who gives exactly zero fucks what’s on your list for that day.

Still, I’d like to think that the fact that this isn’t my first baby rodeo will help me have more reasonable expectations and provide perspective and comfort on those tougher days. With that in mind, I’ve got three goals for this upcoming year at home:

Accept that some things are just not going to get done, but recognize that lots of things are getting done: The last time I went on maternity leave, I had a big list of things I thought I would get done in my “year off” – things like mastering recipes for lemon meringue pie and hollandaise sauce, and finally painting a three-panel seascape for our living room. Seriously.

In retrospect, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. It will shock precisely no one who has ever met a baby that none of these things even got started, let alone finished. But there were lots of other things that did get done – organizing and cleaning projects that made our daily lives as new parents easier, a scrapbook of my son’s first year. And, of course, there was all the growing and developing that my son did over that time, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. In other words, the stuff that was more important to our family got done. 

So this time around, I’m going to try to be kinder to myself and to have faith that while sometimes it may seem as though nothing is getting checked off the list, in the grand scheme of things the important stuff will get accomplished. I may still have no clue how to make hollandaise sauce, but my kiddos will be fed and cared for, so we’ll call that a win.

Get out of the house and into the village: The last time I was on maternity leave, it took me months to feel confident enough to leave the house alone with the baby for any trip longer than the five-minute walk from my house to the local coffee shop and then promptly home. We went lots of places with my husband or other family, but when alone I was petrified that my son would have a meltdown in whatever public place and I wouldn’t be able to handle it by myself. Last time I was on maternity leave, I was also the only one of my friends with a small baby. Linds was home with little A, but she lives six hours away, so our commiserating was mainly over the phone. My not very big house started to feel teeny tiny, let me tell you.

Two days in particular helped me gain a bit of perspective. The first was five months in, when Linds came to visit for a week with A. We took the bus together to the mall to do some Christmas shopping…for most of the day. And you know what? Everyone was fine. The boys were mostly content, but when they got fussy, we knew how to deal. It was exactly the proof I needed that I could hack this mom thing, not just in the safety of my house but out in the world.

The second day was nine months in (yes, nine), the first day that I spent mostly away from my son. All that time focused on the needs of my beautiful little baby hadn’t included enough focus on taking care of myself and I was melting down. My husband saw me melting and, fortunately, took matters into his own hands. He called my mother-in-law, who was more than happy to take my son off my hands the next day while my husband was at work. I don’t even remember what I did with that day. I just remember realizing how very much I had needed that break and how important it is to embrace the village around you.

So, this time around, I want to remember the lessons from those two days. I want to get out of the house more from the start, confident in the knowledge that I am perfectly capable of navigating baby needs in public. And, at the same time, I want to remember that it is more than ok to ask for help. It is necessary. No one can do this parenting thing truly alone, and taking care of yourself is essential to being able to take care of your kids. This time around, I am also fortunate to have a few friends who are home with their little ones too, and I plan to take full advantage. After all, there’s no one who understands what you’re going through as a mom better than other mamas.

Enjoy: Initially, I was going to write “enjoy every moment”, but let’s be real. Some moments…they’re not going to be so great and I’m not going to enjoy them. Some moments are going to royally suck. That’s ok. There are lots of moments that will more than make up for those times that make me want to scream into a pillow.

And having done this before, I know full well that when this year comes to an end, I’m going to wish I had more time at home with my little nugget.

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