This Kid

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This kid.

Being a mom is strange. You decide: the timing is right, finally. You feel a persistent knocking from the other side. Or surprise! And you make a different sort of choice, and with your own body you create a whole new person.

I have long understood that when you get pregnant, you aren’t having a baby. You’re having a person, who happens to start as a baby, but whose life will be more than just that baby time.

But I am also just beginning to understand what that actually means. How the little clump of cells you chose to allow to grow become a body and that body is a person and that person…that person will have you, yes, but not only you, and while they never stop being the most important people in your life, your children become people who have many important people, and one of them is their mom.

It hurts and it is also glorious because it is your goal, as a mother: to help them learn enough to not need you, even though you will never stop needing them.

And this kid—he is right on the cusp of that transition. Sixteen. Sixteen!

Kaleb is the baby I pined for. There is a five year gap between him and his closest sibling, because of various financial difficulties we went through. But through those years I never, ever stopped wanting him and hoping for him and begging heaven to make the time right and then finally the time was, at last, right. For me, I cannot separate those years of wanting from the reality of his existence. In some ways it could’ve been easier to let that hope go, to set it aside, to be OK with the three very-loved children I already have. But it never went away. I suppose if I had chosen that eventually I would’ve processed it but some part of me would’ve always been broken by that longing.

But for him, his life is just his life.

He is funny in an entirely uniquely-Kaleb way. He is quirky. He is determined and stubborn. He is dedicated to his sport (basketball) and loyal to his friends. He is stoic. He doesn’t love reading. He loved fried chicken. He has the sweetest heart—since he understood it, he’s been bothered by homeless people and has wanted to help them. He loves the ocean. He hates having his picture taken. He likes a huge variety of music, including some alternative 80s tunes. He can be loud but he also has a quiet side. He loves a good caramel iced latte. He works SO hard at keeping his body healthy and strong. He makes a mean sandwich and an excellent pile of scrambled eggs.

I love him so much.

I am so grateful I didn’t give up on hoping and praying and wanting and imagining. On wishing him here, on calling him down to this earth,  whoever he was supposed to be.

I love who he is and who he is growing to be.

I am so grateful he is here in the world.

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An Emotion I Don't Know the Word For: on Time and Daughters Growing

When my kids were newborns, I cried a lot. I would look at them, their tiny toes and perfect skin, their unscarred-by-the-world innocent smiles, and cry. I loved the experience of mothering my babies, and I knew it would be fleeting, that the tininess and the gentleness would end. I wanted to hold on to them, to make them stay forever small, but at the same time I wanted to know them, to speak to them, to listen to the story of their day, to bake them their favorite cake.

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I was so happy in those sweet, blissful moments, even with the diapers and the spit up and the exhaustion. The clean-baby smell, the long hours spent just rocking or holding a tiny human, singing Yaz songs to them quietly in my awful voice. I loved them so much and I wanted to protect them and I knew I couldn’t, not fully, not completely, because they were here to grow up and become a part of the world, the world that would need them but also sometimes harm them. I knew they would have their hearts broken and be betrayed, that they would have illnesses and broken bones and all sorts of struggles. I knew that life, no matter how good, also holds difficulties. We can’t be human without them and yet I wanted to keep them away from every type of pain and damage.

My mom told me it was just hormones and I would stop crying eventually.

And sort of, I did. I learned that there is joy in all of the phases of parenting. It’s never the same as that first rush of newborn love, but that is just fine. There are a million different types of love you are blessed to feel as a mom.

But even as I loved each phase, I still, in the moment of it, was deeply aware that it wouldn’t last. This joy—the magic of her reading her first words out loud, his absolute bliss the first time he ran across the beach toward the ocean, the pride infusing his whole body as he managed to ride his bike without wobbling, his concentrated admiration of an orange flower as he struggled to balance in the green grass. At each good moment I still felt the tug, that same sorrow right in the middle of happiness.

I don’t know if there is a word for this feeling: The awareness, while in the middle of happiness, that the happiness itself is ephemeral, so that part of the happiness is always a deep sadness over its ending.

I don’t know if everyone feels that, even.

But it is a feeling I have had ever since they first put my daughter Haley into my arms.

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Yesterday was Haley’s 26th birthday. We got an email from our health insurance company letting us know that a life event had happened to change our policy: she aged out.

And I confess: It made me cry. That same kind of crying that I did when she was a newborn, barely seven pounds, and I was terrified I would do everything wrong but I knew I loved her too much to ever make any mistakes and I would do whatever it took to protect her all her life.

All her life. Pediatrician visits and immunizations. Broken bones. Eye doctor and the dentist. The dermatologist for her plantar warts. Stitches. Physical therapy for her shin splints. All the way up to adult medical needs: I’ve taken care of that, taken care of her in those ways, for every day of her life.

And now she’s on her own.

The feeling is the same, but my understanding of it is different. When they were newborns, the feeling was about them being newborns. Now they are adults, the feeling is about them being newborns and toddlers and schoolkids and teenagers and who they are right now. The feeling is about knowing the feeling will never go away and that I wouldn't want it to.

Right in the midst of birthday happiness, of taking the day to think about all of the things she has accomplished and the good things that are happening in her life, I was reminded there is no holding on to any moment. Time just keeps passing. All we have is now, and now is infinitely precious because in a second it will be replaced by another now.

Thoughts on Sophomore Year

Last week when I dropped Kaleb off at his first day of high school, I had an unexpected reaction. Kaleb and I had a good conversation while we drove to school, mostly joking, and then he told me goodbye and got out of the car. I watched him walk in for just a few seconds—the walkway was lined with cheerleaders shaking pompoms to welcome the students—and then someone honked so I pulled around the driveway and parked for a few minutes. Ostensibly, this waiting was just to make sure Kaleb didn’t need anything, but it was something else, too.

Becky asked me later if I had Feels about taking my youngest child to high school. Shockingly, I kind of didn’t, because it feels so unsure…will he get to stay the whole year? Will it all fall apart? I feel so unsure about how things will go this year with the virus that I don’t think my psyche knew what to do, and so decided on a kind of morose but gentle sadness.

Underneath that, though, was something darker. Something darker and harder and twisted. Something I couldn’t quite label, and it took me a few days, two very strange dreams, and a spark from another conversation for me to start exploring it.

I don’t remember my own very first day of high school. The year I was a sophomore, I was still a gymnast. I went to three classes and then, for the fourth class period, drove twenty minutes to the gym with an older teammate and worked out until six. Then I’d come home, eat, do homework, and start it all over again. That was as normal as my high school experience got, because eleventh grade was a disaster and for my senior year I went to the local community college. English, math, history, biology, art, and Spanish. If you put me back in that high school building, I could walk right to where my locker was. Even though I don’t remember the first day. There are no first-day photos (did people take those in the 80s?) so I don’t know what I wore. I don’t remember which class was first or even how I got there. Did my dad still drive me to school? He must’ve, I guess.

What I do remember clearly was the day of high school registration, which was early in August. I only had one new outfit, because back then my mom would put our school clothes on lay-away until right before classes started. But I loved that outfit, a yellow-and-grey floral print mini skirt and an off-the-shoulder shirt, also yellow. And the white ankle boots I’d gotten when I started ninth grade. My mom dropped me off in front of the school and I walked to where I’d arranged to meet my friends, most of whom lived on the east side and so had come together, given rides by the boys in their neighborhood. My heart sank as I got closer and closer to them, because I realized I was dressed entirely wrong. They all had black on, and they all looked so grown-up and elegant and knowing, while there I was in yellow. My hair felt wrong and my body felt wrong and I didn’t know what to do with my face or my hands.

It’s not that that day was my first time feeling like I didn’t fit in. That feeling had been with me for as long as I could remember. But that day, somehow it felt different. Somehow it felt like an indictment against my…well, I didn’t have the words for it, then, but against my sense of being a woman in the world. It felt like they already knew all the rules, how to dress and how to do their hair the right way, how to talk to boys, how to talk to each other, how to be friends but how to also never trust each other, either.

It was like they had received a letter over the summer that I didn’t get.

When I was in tenth grade, my first year of high school, my parents were fighting all the time. My dad was unemployed and didn’t have a direction to his life anymore. My mom was angry and frustrated at suddenly having to carry the load of being financially responsible for us. They fought all the time and I was alternately terrified that they would get divorced and that they never would. My two older sisters were in different stressful situations which affected the stress levels in our family. (They are not my stories to tell.) My grandpa had died and my grandma, who suffered from dementia, was living in a care home. (My mom was also mostly financially responsible for that bill, too.) We worked hard to make it look, from the outside, like we were a normal, functioning, happy family, but we were not.

Then there’s this: I didn’t really fit in anywhere. My best friend and teammate had quit gymnastics about a year earlier, and I had teammates but no one I thoroughly trusted. Besides, once you’re the girl who has cleaned the gym to pay for her gymnastics lessons, you will never really fit in. I didn’t fit the mold my old friends, from middle and junior high, seemed to fit, the good Mormon girl. My new friends were edgy and rebellious but it was still the same, I still had to watch and pay attention to figure out how I was supposed to act, who I was supposed to be.

So on that auspicious note, my dawning realization that everything about me was wrong, many of it in ways I didn’t even see yet, I started high school. With my mom-dyed hair and the clothes she went in debt for, and before the first term was over I was going to parties on Friday night after gymnastics, and sometimes I drank, and I kissed boys, and I hung out with the kids who did drugs. I kept this secret from my mom and my little sister and my gymnastics teammates, and I was invisible to my old friends, and my new ones taught me so many new things.

By Christmas I had managed to acquire a whole new, almost-all-black wardrobe. I never wore the white boots again.

I went from being a smart, if shy, “normal” girl with a great future in front of her to an angry girl who swore and hung out with the “bad” kids. I did keep my grades up—4.0 my whole sophomore year, even though I had to bluff my way through geometry—and I kept training, until my last meet on the weekend of my 16th birthday.

I didn’t know it, really. My parents didn’t either. But that afternoon at high school registration: that was the spark that started my long, dramatic explosion. Those years weren’t pretty for anyone to watch, and they were brutal for me.

But that is an old story, and not really the point of this writing.

Sophomore class photo

After I dropped Kaleb off, I came home and looked through all of my old photos, hoping I could find my sophomore class picture. I did, and I sat on the floor in my scrappy space and I looked at that girl I used to be. I looked at the picture I had taken of Kaleb before he left. And then I just tried to figure it out. Tried to name that dark, hard feeling.

And I realized: it was anger.

Because no one took care of that girl. When I started to spiral, no one—not teachers or church leaders or coaches or my parents or old friends or anyone—saw anything except I was now “bad.” No one thought…maybe she’s not immoral and awful, maybe she hasn’t suddenly become an idiot. No one thought maybe she is struggling.

They just saw the outside, the black clothes and the cussing tongue, the silver-toed boots and the mood, and they all thought “well, what happened to her?”

Like a piece of beef someone forgot to put in the fridge, I had spoiled. I had gone bad.

“Why don’t you just join the cheerleading squad?” my high school principal advised me (who also happened to be, in the incestuous nature of small Utah communities, my spiritual leader).

“If your problems were as bad as Chris’s, I could understand your behavior, but you have a great life,” my mom told me.

“I wish I could’ve had you when you were ten, but now you’re too old and slow to really improve much more,” my favorite coach told me.

I took their judgement and fired it into shame, and I let the shame fuel my decisions. If I already had that “bad” label, then why do anything else but work to deserve it? If I needed to feel shame for not being from a wealthy family, for having small boobs and muscular thighs, for my high forehead and the fact I preferred books to people—then I took that shame and turned it against myself before anyone else could do it for me.

The tools I had for coping were music, writing, and my messed-up friends. My friends who my mom mostly didn’t like, because obviously it was their fault I had turned bad. In a small way, she was right: they did teach me quite a bit. But I always chose. My choices were based out of fear, anger, shame, guilt, and a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand yet, but still: I chose.

I worked hard to deserve my “bad” label.

So very, very hard.

I looked at that picture of 15-year-old Amy again this morning. I thought…if I could talk to her, would I tell her to choose differently? To find new friends, to stay in gymnastics, to go to school, to not drink, to never, ever even meet that one boy, and then especially not the other one either.

I’m not sure I would.

Instead, I would tell her that goodness isn’t a black-and-white thing. It isn’t a quality narrowly defined by the tenants of one religion. I would tell her to make her bad-ass choices but to remember: she isn’t bad. She is hurting and she needs kindness, understanding, and judgement, and she will find a few people who will give that to her. I would tell her that she gets to define her goodness, and that she will never fit in but that will be OK, because she also gets to define her sense of self. That it is a life-long process, figuring out who she is, where she belongs, how to love herself.

What choices would I have made if I hadn’t made my choices from a place of shame?

I find myself wanting to tell her many things, but more than that, I want to tell some adult: LOOK. Pay attention. Don’t let her slip through this crevasse she’s sliding down.

I’m an adult now, so I understand how hard that is. It is hard to manage your own adult crap and watch out for your teenagers. I’m not really speaking out of judgement to the adults in my past who failed me.

But that dark, hard, bitter feeling? It is anger. Anger that no one was able to see me behind my actions. That no one extended me grace, so I had to do the best I could with what I had, but I never learned to extend myself grace either. Anger that even twenty-five years later, my mom would still talk about my “dark Amy” years with that tone that brought up all the old shame again. That for her, it was always, until she died, about how hard that time was for her.

Also anger at myself that after 30 years, I’m still carrying around this same old darkness, that I don’t know how to bring real light into my corners, that the weight still turns my back into a crook. Anger that all of my unresolved adolescent feelings were too thick to allow me to feel what I should feel about my youngest child starting high school.

But also a sense of resolve. I will never claim to have been a perfect parent. Maybe, as my mom couldn’t give me what I needed, no one can give their child what they need. Maybe that is inherent to the mother/child relationship. I only know my relationship with my mother and my relationship as a mother. I know I made many mistakes and will continue to do so. But the thing is: I always wanted to help them, each one of them, avoid that feeling. That feeling of wrongness, of not fitting in, of not being enough. I tried to love them through their mistakes, instead of judging them. (I wasn’t perfect at that either, but that was my intention.) I will try to never use their pasts as cudgels in the present.

I only have one teenager left. Even though I’ve already raised three of them, I still don’t know what I’m doing. I still don’t know what the right choices are, because they each need something different. But I want to do better with Kaleb. I want my presence in his teenage years to be one of someone who encourages him to find who he is, not who the world thinks he should be. Someone who will recognize that behaviors aren’t always indicative of the type of person someone is, but a reaction to the types of experiences that person is having.

If there is any saving grace to what I went through in high school, let it be that: let it be a way that teaches me what Kaleb will need as he navigates high school, so that when the three years are over, he arrives at graduation with an intact sense of self-grace instead of this half-buried anger I don’t know how to get rid of.

First Mother's Day without Her

Mother's day has always been difficult for me, because it asks us to overlook damage. To see our mothers & ourselves as mothers in a glowing, beautiful light. This year, many friends have said "this will be a hard Mother's Day for you, because it's your first without your mom." I love my friends for seeing and knowing this, and for being supportive. But if I am honest (but not raw, because raw is unbearable right now), this year is only hard in different ways. Mother's Day is about celebrating perfect mothers, and I didn't have a perfect mother. I was not a perfect mother. I wanted to be—I thought I would never damage my children, but despite my best intentions, I did. I know that my mom also had the best of intentions, and I don't really know that perfection is what motherhood asks of us anyway, despite this Hallmark holiday. But that is my truth: my mom couldn't always give me what I needed, I didn't give her what she needed, and it goes the other way, forward, into my children's generation. Logically I know that no one's mother is perfect & no one is a perfect mom. But it seems that other women are able to just see the good parts, the perfect parts, if only on this one day, and I can't. It's my fatal flaw: over thinking, over feeling. I know only this: we cannot bring perfection to motherhood. We can only bring ourselves. And while I didn't bring perfection, in the end all I can hope for, on this day and all the days of mothering, is grace & forgiveness.

This is what I wrote on my Instagram yesterday (I’m @amylsorensen there if you want to follow me). I received a whole bunch of comments about my post, and it also elicited a discussion with Kendell (who doesn’t really understand my use of social media) that devolved into tears as I thought about the ways I have hurt my children and the mistakes I have made.

I think I went into this Mother’s Day—the first one without a mother—thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal because I’ve always struggled with Mother’s Day anyway. That is part of why I wrote what I did, because I was trying to coax myself off the edge, to get myself to believe that it wasn’t a big deal and it wouldn’t hurt more than any other ones. But as I curled into a crumpled, weepy mess on my bed, I had to let myself admit that yes: this one was harder.

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I want to set something straight, based on one of the comments on my post: I don’t think I failed as a mother. I think that failure would look like something different; failure would be giving up, would be not continuing to help them in whatever ways I can, would be not admiring or loving them. And that is not what I meant. I love them—so much. I could add one million “so”s to that sentence and it still wouldn’t say how much I love them. I am proud of them and the people they are becoming. I think they are amazing, each and every one of them, in their unique ways. They are all strong and have each overcome obstacles; they are each continuing to push forward and find their way. They make me laugh; I love talking to them, hearing their opinions and ideas.

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I love them and it is because I love them that my disappointment in my mistakes hurts so much. But I didn’t fail as a mom. I just wasn’t as good of a mom as I wanted to be.

Motherhood, though, is tied tight between generations; it’s not only that I am a mom, but that I was a daughter. My mom’s influence on how I mothered my children is immense, which means each generation influences all the ones that come after, often in ways we can’t even see. Maybe the mistakes my mom’s mom made influenced mine, I mean. So the painful parts of my relationship with my mom seep into my relationship with my kids. The most painful part of yesterday was seeing other adult daughters with their mothers, saying kind things about them. Celebrating their relationship.

I was able to do this when my mom was still here, however imperfectly, because she was still here. I still thought there would be a way to fix, to repair, to move forward in an easier way. And now she is gone, that hope is also gone.

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I loved my mom. She was an amazing woman who could do any craft she set her mind to. She was a sewer in every sense of the word; she made clothes and quilts and stuffed fabric rabbits. One season she sewed all of my gymnastics teammates’ sweats. She made excellent meals and I doubt she ever once served a dinner that didn’t include vegetables. She was a protofeminist who taught me many things about resisting the ways society tries to limit women. She sacrificed for me so I could be as involved with gymnastics as I was growing up. She took care of several of my friends in high school. She took me to the library and bought me books for Christmas and books from the book fair; she left me alone to sit on the back patio, reading away entire afternoons. She was beautiful and always dressed well. She was determined not to let expectations or her body’s limitations stop her—I will always remember her at 68, walking uphill in the desert outside of Cabo San Lucas with me, Haley, and Jake, from one zipline to the next, and the astounded look on the faces of the men helping us attach to the lines. Is this old woman really going to ride? their faces said, and she didn’t even answer their unspoken questions, just went. Amy sue palmilla beach 2012 5x7

I loved her.

But as I became an adult, got married, started my life, things got complicated. This was both of our faults, but I think I felt more guilt about it than she did. I married someone she didn’t get along with (partly because I married her; my husband and my mom are so much alike, and you know what happens when two fires try to interact? Someone gets burned, and it has always been me) and I worked within my marriage in different ways than she did in her marriage with my dad. I had a daughter and my mother loved her, but then I started having sons. She loved them, too, but she didn’t know how to interact with them. There was the tuna-noodle-casserole wedge. There was the fact that I didn’t feel like I could ask her to help me because I felt like I was imposing, especially with my kids. She wanted me to be one way and I wanted her to be another way and neither of us could do what the other one needed.

As time went on there were more wedges. I think my mom had unwavering faith in me that I could do anything in my life—that I was, in fact, meant to do something amazing. Isn’t that strange: her belief in my intelligence and abilities became a wedge because of the dissonance between her faith in me and the reality of my life. I was supposed to change the world but all I really did was what most everyone does, got married, had a family. I graduated from college but “only in English.”


But maybe what was most damaging to our relationship was the differences in our communication habits. My mom is the type of person who assumes that everyone wants to talk to her, to include her, to be involved with her. I’m the type of person who assumes no one wants that from me. So she needed me to be assertive when I didn’t know how, and I needed her to be inclusive in ways that were foreign to her. Neither of these traits is wrong or bad; there isn’t a moral judgement here, but just an acknowledgement.

My sister summed this up for me very neatly in the days after my mom’s funeral. “When it comes right down to it, Amy,” she said, “Mom just didn’t understand you.” The tone of voice in that kind of statement is essential, and hers was patient and loving. That sentence helped me to start letting go of my guilt, because it’s not that I am defective, but just baffling. And that is OK.

So here it is: the first Mother’s Day without my mom. And despite my bravado (which I only shared with my own psyche), it was painful. Much more painful than any other Mother’s Day. It was painful because she wasn’t here, of course. But it was painful because it was a reminder that even if she was here, it wouldn’t have been what other people seem to have. (I’m fully aware of how social media only presents us in one light, and usually it’s positive, which is another reason I wrote that post on Instagram, because I refuse to put myself in a false “Amazing Amy” light.) And since she is gone, that will never happen.

I didn’t get to have an uncomplicated, healthy relationship with my mother, and now I never will.

Which is why I wrote that last sentence of my Instagram post: forgiveness, grace. Forgiving not just my mom but myself (although I can’t imagine what either of those would look like). And letting grace work forward, so that while yes, I wasn’t a perfect mom, I was a mom who tried her best but made many mistakes—while that is true, it isn’t the only story. What I have is whatever future I have left with my smart, funny, caring, unique children and my relationship with them. And what I want to accomplish is that, when they eventually have their first Mother’s Day without their mother, they won’t have this snarl of emotions. They will know (I hope, I hope that is what I can give them) that I love them and that I am proud of them and that they didn’t disappoint me, not once, not ever.

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Thoughts on Missing Nathan

This kid…right now he is my inspiration. I suspect he will be for many years.

I miss him. I miss him so much.

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I miss him teasing me about how much cheese is in the fridge. Yesterday I counted: 10. Swiss, mozerella, asiago, two kinds of parmesan, Romano, sharp cheddar, white cheddar, Muenster, jack. Ten different kinds of cheese and no Nathan to tease me about it.

I miss speaking Spanish with him. His grammar is better than mine and I remember different words than he does, so most of the time we talk in circles, using synonyms and almost-words and a few gestures until we start laughing and explain our thinking in English.

I miss seeing him sitting at the kitchen counter, drawing something. I miss having someone who’s excited when I tell him about buying three new colors of Copics. In fact, the fact that none of my Copics are missing right now, they’re all in their places instead of a few in the kitchen drawer and a few in his bedroom and the aqua one in his backpack: that makes me miss him, too.

I miss gathering up his laundry. (Yes, I know: he’s 19. Why was I still doing his laundry? Not because he asked me to. He could do it on his own. But it felt like one of the last services I could do for him, so I didn’t mind.)

I miss the obscene amounts of groceries I’d have to buy to keep him fed.

I miss him talking to me, and laughing with me, and knowing exactly when I needed a hug. Even if I was acting like I didn’t need a hug.

I miss him.

But he’s sending letters. And ever since I was in fourth grade and had a pen pal from Sweden, I’ve loved getting mail. Every time I check the mailbox I am hopeful there will be another letter in his handwriting, and about every week, or every ten days, there is one. Once three letters came at the same time.

I can tell…he is changing. He is learning and meeting new people and having experiences.

But he’s also still Nafe, still funny and caring.

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In his letters I’ve learned that he is always cold and always freezing. Yes, he’s in the south. But it’s still chilly there, and it’s a humid coldness. He’s not used to that, and plus, he’s like me, he gets cold easily anyway. He misses the smell of the clothes I washed for him, he misses me doing his laundry.

And that is how he is inspiring me. When I’m out hiking or running and I’m cold, I think “but Nathan’s probably colder, and he has to be cold all day, so I will keep going.” I finish my run, I hike longer than I had intended, I take a little bit of his courage and use it in the small ways of my life.

When I’m feeling lazy and thinking “maybe I’ll just get a pizza for dinner,” I think about Nathan being hungry all the time, and missing my cooking, and it inspires me to cook for Kendell, Kaleb, and Jake.

And…this is probably silly. But I have two of his sweatshirts. They’re way too big for me but so comfy. So I don’t have any laundry, really, to do for Nathan. But I still wear his sweatshirts, and wash them, and remember that he is grateful for that little service I did for him. Wearing his big maroon sweatshirt helps me miss him just a little bit less. It makes me feel less discouraged about the kind of mother I was. It inspires me to be better, to watch for other little ways I can help Kaleb and Jake and Haley. It reminds me that family relationships are built with time and effort and that while I have never been a perfect mom, I have tried, and then I start crying a little bit, there in my laundry room, because I love him and I love all of my kids so much and I’m just so grateful I got to be their mom.

I’m in my laundry room crying and he’s out in the world. He’s learning and changing and making other relationships. My influence on his life will continue to be less.

But, this kid. I have a feeling that he will inspire me, not just now, but for the rest of my life.

on Nathan, or Wishing Time Could Stand Still

Right now—right now—this boy is asleep in his bed in his bedroom in our house, the bedroom that is underneath the office where I am writing. Right now I just put a load of his clothes into the washing machine. The last load of his clothes I will wash for a while. Maybe the last load of his clothes I will wash ever. Nathan amy jan 2019

Right now he is here, sleeping like only he can, delved deep, burrowed under. He can sleep like this for hours, into the late afternoon some days. This will be his last morning of sleeping in at our house in his own bed.

Everyone in your life brings you something specific. Nathan brings me goodness. He tries so hard to be thoughtful and considerate of me. He makes me laugh. He reminds me that I am stronger than I think. He is insistent in hugging me, even when someone else’s kindness is almost too painful to bear. He is a light and a brightness in my life; sometimes I start to think that he is my only Person, the one person in my life who tries to see me and love me for who I am and not who they need me to be.

(Then I remind myself that that is too heavy a thing for a son to carry, and not his role or responsibility.)

He isn’t perfect, of course. He swears too much and dirty jokes fly out of his mouth. He gets annoyed at irresponsible or frustrating people. He loses his patience with his brothers and he shouts at his dad.

And thank God he isn’t perfect, because no one is.

I have a clear memory from the day he was born. Fresh to the world, he looked up at me, and I had an overwhelming sense of his nature, of who he would be. It washed over me in an almost-physical way, like a piece of cloth. The feeling was this: this child will be both gentle and fierce. Gentle and fierce. This feeling proved true, for he is both of those things. He is brave and he carries his softness in a brave way, not letting the world take it from him.

I thought on that day he was born that I had so many years, so much time of learning about him and teaching him and watching him become who he was. So much time.

And I did. “Nathan” means “gift from God” and that is exactly what he has been in my life. A brightness, a tenderness, a person I am endlessly grateful God gave to me. My son who loves knives and art, all at the same time, who can draw and paint, box and lift weights.

But it’s still not enough time. Or it just went too fast.

Right now, while I am writing this, he is sleeping. Sleeping under a quilt I made him.

But after I write this, I will have to wake him up.

Today, we will box up the rest of his bedroom. Much of it has already been packed, but today we will finish it. That last load of clean clothes will be dried and most of them will also be put into a box.

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we will get up, and drive with him to Camp Williams. Then we will hug him goodbye, and he will set off on his new adventure. Basic training and then learning a foreign language in the National Guard.

This is not my first time having a child leave home. Haley went to college for five years, and now she lives in Colorado. Jake moved out with friends after high school. Nathan is not my first child I have had to let go of, to send out into the world with only my hopes and prayers around him, wearing clothes that I washed. I can do this.

But this feels harder, somehow. This feels more permanent. This is a beginning for him, but it is an end for me.

I know I will always be his mother. But this feels like the end of mothering him.

He will come home changed. I hope the changes are good ones: fiercer but also more understanding of the strength and importance of his gentleness. I hope that these experiences don’t cause the fierceness to overwhelm the gentleness.

I almost can’t breathe for thinking about all of the ways he could be hurt.

Tomorrow. In 24 hours…in 20 hours, I could sit down again at this same computer, in the office that is over his bedroom. But it won’t be his bedroom anymore. And he won’t be sleeping there.

All of the time, the days and minutes and seconds and weeks…they all dissolved, and what I am left with are memories, and photos, and the way his existence has made mine better. All I am left with his hope, and fear, and worry. But also I have courage, the courage he was born with that he shared with me. And belief that he will take his fierceness and his gentleness to other people as well.

No mother gets to keep her children forever. They all grow up and make their own lives, as they should.

But oh, it is bittersweet.

And I only have a few hours left to savor.

Thoughts on Finding Your Ideal Life

When Haley was little and I was pregnant with Jake, I had a conversation with a dear friend that troubled me for many years. We were talking about motherhood and babies; I was expecting and she had a newborn. I’ve forgotten the crux of the conversation, but I will never forget something she said: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a mother,” she said, her face happy as she patted her son, who was slung over her shoulder in that milk-drunk contented sprawl that babies have. “I don’t want a career or anything else. I just want to be a mom.”

Her comment troubled me because not only was that not how I felt (or ever had felt), it is what our culture (we are both LDS) tells us we are supposed to feel. An ideal LDS family, it seemed to me then, was one with a husband who had a fantastic job that paid for a big, beautiful house and provided enough money that the wife could be a stay-at-home mom, happily raising her children. (Who would all grow up to also have this ideal life.)

While I did want to be a stay-at-home mom, I also had other aspirations. I wanted to finish my education. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a mom and other things. And I had always wanted that; when I was a little girl playing with dolls, I never just mothered them. I took them to imaginary places. We went on airplanes together. I got them dressed and took them to the babysitter and then picked them back up. (The “babysitter” was another doll.) Even as that very little version of myself, I wanted to be a mother but I also wanted to be other things.

And the fact that I wanted that AND felt, to my very-young and still-learning-about-being-an-adult self, to be wrong somehow. Like the aspiring part of me was someone I had to tamp down and control.

But life has a way of teaching us what we don't know we need to learn.

Amy and kids 05 24 2017 hawaii hilo
My "mother's day" photo this year, a few days late: me and my kids at twilight on a beach in Hilo, Hawaii. Non-awesome exposure because the sun was almost down, but a photo I love and cherish anyway.

I did get to be a stay-at-home mom, something I wanted desperately to do when my kids were young. I feel blessed that I had that time, even though it was difficult.

When I had to start working away from my kids, because of financial difficulties, I was devastated. Angry and frustrated because I thought I had chosen what I needed to choose in order to continue to be blessed in that way. I always felt lucky to be a sahm, even though I always had those aspirations, because I wanted to have that time with my kids, have those experiences that can only come when you’re at home all day with small children. It was difficult and sometimes I felt lonely and lost, but I never resented it. When I had to give it up, the devastation came because I didn’t get to continue having those moments. I wasn’t ready to stop being a stay-at-home mom, and those years of working full time as a teacher were difficult.

But they were also rewarding. They taught me that I could find happiness and satisfaction in many different roles. They gave my children some positive experiences that shaped them in ways I couldn’t have. They also taught me the value of choice, of considering my options and striving to choose what was right not just for my family but also for myself. They taught me the value of my aspirations.

During my time of being a mother, I have also been a student, a writer, a teacher, and a librarian. I have been a person who makes things and who teaches other people how to make things. A runner, a hiker. Even a traveler (although not nearly enough).

Now I am in what I am starting to think of as the post-minivan time of motherhood. We only need a car with four seatbelts, and car seats are a thing of the past. It’s been years since I had little ones; I’m in the middle of teenagers and new adults. And I still have aspirations. I still have many things I want to do: write successfully to a wide audience; travel to many more places; hike as many peaks as I can. Inspire more people to love books and libraries. Run another marathon or two or five, run even more half marathons. I have even started to imagine myself becoming active in local politics. And: I plan on continuing to take care of my children, even if they are no longer children. I hope their futures intertwine with mine, I hope they find good spouses and I hope their spouses want a relationship with me, too. I hope my kids become parents one day. If they want. More than anything, I want them to find lives that they love, lives that are ideal for them. I want them to choose the things that will bring them the deepest happiness which is, I’m convinced, not based on fulfilling someone’s idea of what is ideal but their individual and unique versions of ideal.

And I hope through all of that to be a mother to them.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a dear friend that’s been troubling me a little bit. It’s such a different format of conversation than the one I had twenty years ago with my old friend (who did, by the way, achieve her desire: she has a large family and has been able to stay at home with them), over Facebook, so I could write the exact crux of it. But what matters is her concern: what will she do with herself when her youngest child heads off to school? Who will she be? How will she bear having those days of actively mothering her little kids come to an end?

What troubles me is that she only feels sadness about this new chapter in her life, not excitement. Don’t get me wrong: I, too, was sad when Kaleb headed off to first grade. But I was also excited for the time I had to pay more attention to myself. I’m troubled for her—that she might mourn too long, or always look backward instead of focusing on what is here before her. Motherhood is a blessing, but it is not the only thing that defines us. It troubles me because our culture sometimes focuses on motherhood without acknowledging that we are all, also, other things, and that the intense work of mothering small children always comes to an end. They grow up. What you will be when that happens is up to you, and that choice is also a blessing.

Our conversation, though, also helped me to understand again a knowledge I am continually relearning. When I look back over the shape that my life has taken over the past 25 years, I do feel blessed. Lucky, even. But I don’t have that ideal LDS family. I don’t have the big, beautiful home on the bench (preferably near a temple). I have adult children who aren’t interested in the church. I have my own struggles with my faith. But between the opportunities God blessed me with and the choices I made, I have been able to find my own ideal, too. Or at least, I am in the process of creating it. I won’t be finished making it until I am finished with my life.

This is what I didn’t know when I had that long-ago conversation with my friend: her desire to be a stay-at-home mom wasn’t bad, and my desire to be a mom and something else was also not bad. Like motherhood itself, my aspirations for an and are God-given. They are part of who I am and to deny them is to deny how God made me.

I cherished my days as a stay-at-home mom. And I am cherishing my days right now, in my post-minivan world. I am a mother and I am many other things, and that, for me, is the ideal. And I think it should be everyone’s ideal: find who you are. Choose who you will be. If that choice is staying at home, do that if you can. If that choice is being a mom with a career, do that. The ideal image of the perfect Mormon family is only that: an image. Perfect is what you create for yourself.

Perfect is the act of choosing, with all of the attendant messiness that happens after. Perfect is embracing who you are. Perfect is knowing that is ideal.

on Dreams, and Secret Rooms, and Longing for the Past

Before Haley and Jake graduated from high school and went off to college, I had a reoccurring dream. I’d be doing laundry and look up and realize there was a door hidden behind the spot where I hang clothes to dry. I’d part the damp clothes (a little bit Narnian, yes?), open the door, and discover a previously-unknown bedroom. A rush of relief would come over me: this new bedroom would mean no one would have to share a room, and that there’d be an easing in the space everyone used in our house, so fewer sibling tensions.

I always laughed a bit when I woke up from the dream, because it was such an obvious message from my psyche about the things I was worrying about—my kids being happy and having the space they need to explore their identities, as well as my frustration that I couldn’t find the answers I needed through the normal routes. Only magic or secret bedrooms would help, and as I didn’t have those, I continued being frustrated, wishing I could fix things but never finding the unknown door to answers.

I had that dream a few times after Haley moved out, but I haven’t had it at all since Jake moved out. We have plenty of space now, and while it is painful and diminishing in a very specific way, having your kids leave—I miss them quite a bit—it is also sort of…rewarding, I guess. To see them move forward and begin to figure out their lives on their own. To watch them form their own spaces, as it were.

Last night I had a sort-of similar dream that helped me recognize something I am feeling right now in my life.

In this dream, I was again standing by the just-remembered door in the laundry room. When I opened it, I discovered that the hidden room held a bunch of boxed-up treasures. All of the clothes I wore as a young mother, favorite sweaters that had been lost or worn out, my pink flowery capris I wore until they fell apart. My kids’ baby clothes, the tiny newborn gowns, their favorite toddler outfits and first-day-of-school T-shirts; Jakey’s “basket shoes,” a tiny pair of Michael Jordan’s that he loved more than anything, Nathan’s favorite belt, all of Haley’s spinny dresses, Kaleb’s beloved white blankey. Boxes of all the crafts I’ve ever intended to make but haven’t gotten around to, Christmas gifts and Mother’s Day gifts and birthday gifts now crafted and stacked next to appropriately-sized and themed gift bags. Quilts that I have imagined in my real life but never finished, entirely finished and obviously bound by me (I always have one wonky corner). Photo albums, with pictures neatly arranged in plastic sleeves—beautiful photos of all of my kids, alone and together, photos of them with their parents and friends and siblings and cousins, each one perfectly composed and crisply focused, with depth of field that made me weep. These were all photos I had never seen and didn’t remember taking, but they brought me to memories I cherish (in my waking world, I mean, not my dream one).  I also found a box with scrapbooks I had forgotten I had made, and these were all about how I felt through all of my various stages of motherhood, from my first pregnancy to our most recent vacation. There were kids in the layouts, but the pages themselves were about me, my joys and frustrations and treasured moments, a record not of their lives but of mine as their mother.

My own little Cave of Wonders, except not jewels and gold, but wealth of a different sort. A gathering of objects that, when touched or looked at, could remind me more clearly how it felt to be that person I used to be, when I wore or made the object, or when it was loved by the people I love.

I did laugh, a little, when I woke up. Those photos were so beautiful. But it was a teary sort of laughter, informed by self-realization. I remember once, when I was in the thick of mothering little kids, my mother told me that the happiest time in her life was when we were all little. Her comment both reminded me to savor those days, instead of complaining my way through them, and made me a little bit sad: is that really the only happiness we get? The sweetness of little children? Isn’t there sweetness as they grow and become adults?

I am discovering that yes, there is sweetness. But it is a complicated, layered sweetness, like an extra-dark chocolate filled with a rich salted caramel. It is delicious, but it is not simple anymore. I love my children so much, all of them. I love seeing them find their way in the world. But this phase of my life isn’t easy. Of our lives; life isn’t simple—for me, but especially for them. There have been injuries and bruises and lingering scars and we have all been changed. We will all continue to change.

So I curled in bed this morning, remembering my dream. Thinking about how clearly my psyche was saying take me back. And how hard I wish my waking self could remember exactly how that felt, to have the simple, uncomplicated love of young children surround me every day. I am not wishing away my right now, yearning for what used to be. There is only forward. But clearly, my dream told me, clearly I miss it. And I am afraid of losing those memories, afraid I haven’t written enough down, snapped enough photographs, saved enough used-up objects.

Clearly I would like to revisit it somehow, even though I know that room doesn’t exist. It’s just empty wall behind the drying laundry.

I can’t believe my mother was right—that all of my happiest days are behind me. I know there is joy in the future, too. There is joy right now. But, as we face yet another new school year starting, Nathan’s senior year and Kaleb’s first in junior high, I am feeling nostalgia for what-used-to-be. I am wishing I could revisit and maybe revise, maybe somehow get things right, ensure fewer bruises, fewer scars. Or even just scoop one of my children up again, in their chubby baby selves, and hold them close, and know that simple love again.

Even though I know that is a locked door that is lost forever.

The Motherhood Place I Am In Right Now

If you are a mom, I’m certain you remember this moment:

Jake newborn b&w

The very instant your baby is placed in your arms—after a C-section, or delivery, or from a birth mother’s arms. However you got that baby—that moment.

When you first see that baby’s face, and you look at it—you look at it for the very first time, and you realize this is a new person. An entirely new person, just beginning his life.

And you want to do everything right. You know you will do everything right. You promise you will.

You’ll never get mad. You’ll never mess up. You’ll teach him everything he needs to know. You’ll help him avoid heartache. No heartache will happen on your watch.

And there are so few. So few moments, or days, or maybe even a week, until you mess up. You love him more than anything, but still you mess up.

Heartache comes no matter what you do.

I’ve been thinking about that promise I made, four times, to each of my babies. How it was an impossible promise, even though I made it with all of my heart. Especially, this week, that moment I had with Jake.

Every baby arrives with his or her own personality. You can sense it when you’re pregnant but once the baby arrives, it seems to beam out of their skin. It’s unique to each baby and is, I think, their most essential, truest self.

Jake had this specific…sweetness. Or joy. Or kindness. A goodness. I never did find the exact word for it, but oh my, it was…delicious. As he grew he showed me more and more of it, the kindness, the sweetness.

The goodness.

And I worried. I knew—that life would not let him keep it.

Even though I promised to never mess up. To do everything right and to be the perfect mom and to spare him every heartache. To make it so he could keep a hold of that quality he had.

But slowly, slowly, it slipped away, his essential Jakey-ness.

Actually, I don’t think it slipped away. I think it just got buried. Partly it had to be buried, because life and the world does not value kindness or sweetness or joy. Especially not in boys. The world wants toughness. It wants hardness, it wants fists and muscles and strong jaws.

He still has it, but he keeps it hidden.

Even with me.

Except, every once in a while. Every so often, it slips. The manly façade, and I see his true self, still there. He’s still sweet, and kind, and gentle.

I saw it last week, when he and I were packing up his bedroom as he prepared to move out.  It slipped out when he realized that, despite the excitement of an apartment and roommates and all that freedom, this is hard. Changing your life, taking a step into your future. It means what has been normal is now the past, and that is a hard transition even if it’s to a good place.

And then, a few hours later when we stood by the truck, which was filled with his stuff, my own mask slipped. Because I remembered—that moment. That first moment I saw his face. That moment when I was so sure. That I would be a great mom,  that I would give him everything he needed, that I would never mess up. When I was awash in the goodness of his personality, that indefinable Jacob sweetness.

Jake saw that I was struggling. So he came over and hugged me. He said, “Oh, Murm,” and he patted my shoulder and I put my face against his chest (because that is as high as I can reach) and I sobbed. Not just sobbed, but keened, a raw sound I hope no neighbors heard. Because for that moment there it was, the goodness, the kindness.

And for a second, even though him moving out felt like having my liver being pulled out of my ear canal, felt like losing him, like I lost, when he hugged me it felt like I didn’t fail. Like maybe I was a good mom. Like maybe I did give him at least some of the things he needed.

You start out from that first moment, loving your child with a feeling that the word “love” doesn’t manage to convey, starting to know them, and then learning them throughout their lives. Until something happens, adolescence, a mistake, something, and they start keeping secrets, they turn away, they keep themselves away from you.  You know them at their essential self but you slowly stop knowing them.

It is how it has to be, I suppose. So that growth can happen, so that we can separate like we must.

But oh, it is painful.

I can’t reconcile those two experiences, the first time I saw Jake, and then the last year, wanting to still know him, but not knowing him.

So I put my head on his chest and I wept and he, with his goodness, patted my back and gave me, as he left, a bit of himself again.

When you have a baby, you never can really imagine yourself into this place, when your child is no longer a baby, is the opposite of a baby, and is determined to go out into the world. When you have to let go. But motherhood is like that, isn’t it? We are always letting go. They grow and change so fast, there is barely time to love who they are now before they change again into a new thing. But this—this leaving. Even though he’s only across town. This is as hard to label as anything else—I don’t have a word for it. It’s an ending that requires grieving, but that’s silly because it’s not like anyone died. He’s doing exactly what 18-year-olds should do: moving upward into his own life.

It’s what we are working for as mothers. Making ourselves obsolete.

My voice has quieted, but somewhere inside me I am still making that raw sound.

So here I am, a week later. Eight days after Jake moved out. I’ve talked to him a few times, he’s come home for dinner, but it’s not the same. He is not the same. The wall covering up his truest self is firmly in place and his responses let me know that I’m mostly bugging him. He wants to move around in his parent-free world. And I am terrified of the possibility of the choices he could make. I still want to spare him every single heartache. But this is the motherhood place I am in right now: all I can do now, mostly, is watch. Is hope I taught him enough, or that he was listening even when it seemed he wasn’t listening. Hope that he will fulfill his enormous potential, that he won’t make irreversible mistakes. That he will find people who will see in him what I know is there—and I don’t mean his ridiculous math and science aptitude. I mean that indefinable thing, the goodness, the sweetness, the kindness. I hope he will find a space where he can be that person.

IMG_8572 jake at graduation with amy 4x6

(I didn't take any pictures of Jake moving out. It was too hard. But this is us at his graduation this spring.)

(This post inspired by Stephanie Howell's "Blog Your Heart" series.)

on Jacob, Turning 18

One of my favorite moments this Christmas was watching old Christmas videos with the kids. We always videotape Christmas mornings, but we haven’t watched them for ages—some, we haven’t ever watched. We picked them at random, one when Kaleb was a baby, the year we gave the Bigs DSs. I told Kendell he should find a really old one, so he put in the tape from Christmas 2001. This was a hard Christmas for us. Kendell had been unemployed for a year, and that month he had spent two weeks working in New York on computers damaged in the 9-11 attacks. Our Christmas was entirely provided by a secret Santa (who was my sister-in-law, I’m 99% certain), and while that act brought me much peace (not for the gifts themselves, but for the fact that it made me feel seen, even though the seeing itself couldn’t save us), it didn’t erase the deep fear that always ran through me. What would happen to us?

But as I watched that video, I didn’t remember my sadness and fear. What I remembered was how that felt, loving those three sweet little ones. Haley, at six, was a miniature version of who she is now, loving her brothers but also slightly bossy. Every single gift of Nathan’s (who was barely two) was opened by Haley, part way, and then he cheerfully took it from her and finished. Nathan, too, seemed like a tinier copy of himself, cheerful and bubbly.

But Jake.

Oh my little Jakey. I had forgotten how…Jake he was. At very nearly four years old. I don’t have a word for it—I’ve never had a word for it. For his essential Jacob self, which was kind and helpful and sweet and good.

Jake christmas 2001

At the start of the video, the kids are standing at the end of the hall, lined up like turtles, waiting to go into the front room to see if Santa came. Jake is whispering let us see, let us see, and the excitement emanating from him is almost palapable.

He was so happy. So happy.

It wasn’t just Christmas-day happiness. I looked back at pictures today, on his 18th birthday, and I remembered: part of his essential Jakey self was his happiness.

I saw it in that video. I see it in the photos. I have it in my memory.

But I don’t see it much in the Jake I know now IMG_1715 jake amy edit 4x6


Unlike Haley and Nathan, he has changed—in his deepest, essential self. He has lost that happiness that used to surround him like a halo. I have worried and ached and despaired and prayed—over my sweet Jake. Seeing that video, I could finally see it clearly. Why I am in the same room with him but miss him: his happiness, the unique, undefinable quality that defined him, is missing.

Today he turns 18. Life is waiting for him. He has a scholar­ship and another scholarship. He can be anything he want. I’m excited to see what he does with his potential. Who he becomes.

But more than anything, I want to help him find his happiness again. I want him to have the grown-up version of that joy he used to carry. I always worried the world would strip it from him (it is one of the abiding themes of all my journal entries about him), that I wouldn’t be mother enough to save it. Who has happiness in this world? Jake did, though. I don’t know—is it just adolescence? Or is it more?

In the video from 14 years ago, Jake hugs me after he opens a gift. It was a Rescue Hero (remember those?) but it doesn’t matter what it was. What matters, now, was him hugging me. Was being reminded of who he was and what he lost and how he’s changed. I want him to find it again, that happiness. I want him to be who he is.

I don’t quite know how to help him yet. But at least now I can see we need to start.