The Heat of the Light

September 9, 2010 at 9:05 am 18 comments

Once upon a time there was a woman. She worked a simple job, took her dog on long walks, spent her mornings in a yoga studio and her days-off in a cafe. She thought of the world as a place of infinite possibility, one of pleasure, mystique, and comfortable wonder. In the winter she wore scarves and hats, battened down against the novelty of snow. In the summer her feet bore the permanent marks of a sandaled tan.

She dated, as women do, often picking a man solely because of his un-rightness for her. A drunk, a mountain climber, a “good guy”, types she found fascinating from a research perspective, like traveling in a foreign country, knowing all the while she would return to a familiar skyline. Then, as in a storybook, she falls in love, meeting a man who both fascinates and satisfies her, and though it brings a flush of embarrassment to her cheeks to think of it now, she recalls phoning her sister and girlfriends and remarking that the love one sees in a movie does not just belong on the big screen. She has found it.

He comes with more than a toothbrush. His treasure is round-eyed and beautiful – an infant and a toddler – brimming with life, and in full possession of his heart. When the woman looks up, across the primary-colored plastic kid’s table he has squeezed into his kitchen, she sees a man in an oatmeal sweater, with tossled brown hair and children at his feet, and thinks I always imagined a man like this. There are days when it is just she and him, and they walk for miles, seeing the world  through a gauze of fairy dust. When they are apart, for however short the duration, they write letters, with illustrations and thorough descriptions of love, to be left in each other’s mailboxes during the dark of night. Other days they squat around the same piece of paper, arms stretched to reach around little-girl shoulders, moving a fat marker around and around in games of coloring tag, on others they wrap little heads in warm hats, bundling children under a down sleeping bag, and push a loaded stroller through deep banks of snow.

Years later the woman discovers she is pregnant, and the sensation of life growing inside fills her with greater love for them all. Like a valentine made real, her baby rests within her strong body and though she continues much as before, as much in love, as much a parent to the little girls, as much a hard worker and devoted dog walker, the world is forever changed. Swings make her dizzy and she cries during movies, causing her partner to search the video rental store down the street for strictly comedic or romantic features. Her belly swells larger each day and she imagines a perfect scenario in which she could nestle in her man’s front shirt-pocket, napping occasionally, soothed by the sound of his heart as he moves through his day. She finds relief from the strength of her emotions by walking, pointing out, even though she knows her unborn child cannot see, the first christmas lights strung over the eaves of neighboring houses, and remarking that the sounds the baby hears from her watery bed are simply the frantic barks of the Siberian husky down the street and nothing to be feared.

The smell that wafts off her baby’s head is a scent that enters through her nose but forever embeds itself in the fabric of her spirit. It is a smell that changes everything. For a time, the dog, the children, the partner, and the house are fuzzed out, eclipsed by the urge to be near the baby, to feel its weight in her arms, to smell that smell, to nurse and stare. Beloved family members arrive to help, to hold the baby while she naps or showers, but the woman holds tight, aware that many social rules are being broken, that she is perhaps acting quite rudely, but she does not pass the baby. She knows then that she will never work an ordinary work week again.

The baby grows, as babies do, but she never strays far from her mother. The woman is always near, always poised to accept the reaching hand, to scoop up and kiss, always ready to give herself again, and again, night or day, to her chubby, bronze skinned-child. Years pass in this way, and as others in their play group venture on their own up the slide, seeking independence and adventure, the child does not. The woman, instead, is implored to join her daughter, to never release the grubby hand, to sit beneath her at the top of the slide and cushion her descent. Though it soothes her completely to be near in this way, indeed in some ways she hopes her girl will never shake off her reaching hand, she also wonders bittersweetly, how long it will last.

Independence arrives surreptitiously, in short stops and starts so that at first the woman doesn’t notice it for what it portends. Each solo foray appears like a fluke, a rare moment of separation, but over time it slowly begins to dawn on her that there are stretches of the day in which she and her girl have not nursed, whole pieces of an hour in which the child plays quietly by herself, even occasions in which the girl happily hops up to her fathers hip for a mother-less adventure and hardly turns her head to wave goodbye. In moments like these the woman can sense a spotlight swing in her direction, she can feel its heat warming her cheek, its silence ominously pushing against her. She straightens the house, she plans the next meal, she checks emails, but the question that keeps fighting its way to the front of her mind will not go away. Who am I? What do I DO?

The woman’s devotion to her child, to her happiness and health, to her emotional growth and sense of security, has both filled her completely and distracted her entirely. At the first glimpse of her daughter suckling happily at her breast, the question of identity was laid aside, an unnecessary query when the woman’s purpose was so clearly illustrated. But now, when her arms are occasionally empty she returns to it, at first with panic, and then with interest. Her first instinct is to do, to make something more than dinner, and then that drive extends further. As she lies awake at night she imagines making herself successful, making not just snacks and beds but money as well.

When she rises the ambition that accompanied her to sleep still lingers. She makes tea and cereal, she reads stories, and brushes teeth, keeping one eye open for her opportunity, for the moment her daughter will become occupied, freeing her to step into that other person, the one that succeeds and cashes a paycheck. But most days that freedom is an illusion, for the yawning moments of play she imagined, the lengthy spots of time for non-motherly activities are in fact, quite fleeting, interrupted repeatedly by small-voiced requests. The woman is torn, wishing she had never been spotlighted, never been released even temporarily from motherly duties, never teased by glimpses of the other side if she were not going to be allowed to participate, but also loving the sound of her name on her daughter’s lips, the weight of her  on her lap, her scent, her thoughts, her everything.

If she were needed by this little being, from now until the end of time, there really would be no plaguing questions at all, as the woman, at times, can convince herself that she is capable of happily serving this being forever. But time dictates that her devotion will be required less and less, at some point, perhaps in the near future, even becoming both unnecessary and unwanted. Also, the spotlight will not rest. It’s unfriendly gaze will seek her out when bills are due, when others receive raises at work or accolades for intellectual achievements, it will shine its hot light on her cheek, and she will find herself asking with greater regularity Who am I? What do I DO?

So the woman sits in the park, clustered on a bench with other mothers, watching her daughter, – now running freely, now scarcely checking to see if the woman is near – and wondering. They finger the holes in their jeans, discussing what they’d buy if they were making any of their own money, and turning their options over in their minds again and again. The woman hopes there is an in-between, a way to face the spotlight and declare I am this! I am a mother, a devoted loving mother that spends her days with her child. But I am more. She yearns for a break in the clouds, an angel to sweep down and tell her that there is a way to do it all. A way to keep her child at her side, to avoid dropping her off in a brightly-colored room filled with wooden blocks across town, and a way to still contribute to the family finances, to an intellectual community, and to the world.

The woman wants to feel the heat of that light and turn triumphantly toward it, to welcome it in, and shine it right back.


Entry filed under: favorites, life lessons. Tags: , , , , .

Portrait of a 3 Year Old Shhhhhh…

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Becky  |  September 9, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Beautifully written. I feel the same these days. I had a taste of ‘freedom’ with my first child before my second was born. I started to knit again, I joined a book club with a friend, my husband and I had evenings alone while our son was at his grandparents for a few hours, I could cook supper every night if I wanted to…. I try to remember to slow down and enjoy this new baby phase again like I did with my first because I know it won’t last long, but I’m not as good at it as I was the first time.

  • 2. kimberley  |  September 9, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    thanks for this post. it is absolutely beautiful. I feel exactly the same way and it makes all of these feelings so much more comfortable to know others feel the same way. thank you

    • 3. nataliechristensen  |  September 9, 2010 at 7:45 pm

      You’re welcome Kimberley, I’m glad you liked it.

  • 4. kris laroche  |  September 9, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    there is a publisher out there looking for this.
    i can hardly bare that there is the spotlight, that there is a time when the little hand won’t reach for me, when we will actually be apart more than we are together. i can hardly bare that i will have to do something else other than this. and…i can hardly bare that there i am built to contribute otherwise and feel those feelings of wanting to. these five years, i have contributed the least in terms of worldy things, money, “work”, and yet, it has been more fulfilling than anything ever has or maybe ever will. i’m glad you feel the urge to write, and that you listen because it is a gift to us all.

    • 5. nataliechristensen  |  September 9, 2010 at 8:59 pm

      i know what you mean: ” i have contributed the least in terms of worldy things, money, “work”, and yet, it has been more fulfilling than anything ever has or maybe ever will.” so true. thanks.

  • 6. Julie Williams  |  September 9, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    does it help to know that I and many others have similar feelings, just from the opposite end of the spectrum? I’ve watched you and Nathan and your beautiful family so many times, and thought “I want that.” It’s a want that takes over all my emotions at times, accompanied by a fear that it might never come, that i have chosen a path that makes such things difficult. Once again I admire the beauty and honesty of your writing. Thank you for this, Natalie.

    • 7. nataliechristensen  |  September 9, 2010 at 8:58 pm

      Well that’s a perspective that I hadn’t turned over in my mind in a long time. Thanks Julie.

  • 8. carrie  |  September 9, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    you are not alone–
    you can be it all and have it all—it all starts with mothering.
    Your experience and the gift you have in sharing it thru writing is the perfect creative endeavor for a loving mama
    thankyou for sharing

  • 9. Jessi  |  September 10, 2010 at 1:23 am

    i’m with julie on this one:
    i hope you take comfort, if only a little, in knowing that the life you have is envied.
    not envied in that i would keep you from having it so i could have it, but envied in the way that i find great value in your life (especially the everyday mundane parts) and hope that one day i might have a life just as rich as yours.

    • 10. nataliechristensen  |  September 10, 2010 at 7:46 am

      i certainly do not want to belittle the wonders of motherhood. I love it, as you all know, (I hope), so well. It has by far been the most satisfying time of my life.
      Two things make me think about who I am beyond mothering, and cause me to investigate the possibilities.
      1. the girls will not need me forever, already are independent in many ways.
      2. a single salary household is a very frugal one. our culture/economy no longer supports a mother simply mothering as her job.
      I remember being single, childless, and yearning for more purpose. Children certainly fill that for me, give purpose to sweeping the floor, washing sheets, folding towels, everything. I want that. I want my girl with me all day, I do not seek freedom from her, i just also want money, and maybe to feel successful in other ways too.
      Thanks for your comment, it has caused me to see my life, again, for the luxury and treasure that it is. xo

  • 11. alyssa  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:17 am

    this is beautiful natalie.

    • 12. nataliechristensen  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:24 am

      Thanks Alyssa.

  • 13. Helen  |  September 11, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    You put into words so beautifully the way I’ve been feeling. Thank-you.

    • 14. nataliechristensen  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:48 pm

      Oh I’m glad Helen. I had a funny feeling there were quite a few of us feeling like this.

  • 15. Myers  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Poignant entry, Natalie. I tend to fight the fear of the day my son (10 months) will “outgrow” my attending on him. Even the day he stops holding my hands to walk all the time and walks on his own. I DON’T wish him to be little forever, as you don’t with your babies … but, boy, is it fulfilling when he is. As my own mother said, “You work yourself out of a job — the best job in the world!”

    Thinking of you with support and understanding as you find your way … which you will!

    • 16. nataliechristensen  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:49 pm

      It sure is fun being needed but your mom’s right, the very fact that they don’t need you means you’ve dome a good job. Still is bittersweet though. 😦

  • 17. Shelly  |  September 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Very bittersweet.
    Thank you for this. This is exactly where I’ve been struggling lately. My son as an infant and young toddler needed me, and only me, constantly. As a fiirst time mom, it was very confusing and overwhelming, but I followed his lead. As he’s grown he’s become very independent and very sure of himself, but I’m now finding it so difficult to not be needed. I’ve also just switched to working full-time from home as my husband begins our new business venture from home. Now our son runs to his dad when he used to run to me. I’m very glad my husband is getting to experience it and feel all the love, but I feel to unnecessary and unloved. I’m finding this to be a huge, difficult transition. I long for more creative “me” time, but I’ve become aware of what I’m missing when I do get it. Its like its a double edged sword.
    Thank you for writing this. Thank you also for sharing your birth story. Beautiful!!

  • 18. Who am I? What do I do? This is a beautiful post that sums up  |  September 14, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    […] […]


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