With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Quantifying Love

“In a provocative New York Times article, Ayelet recently made a controversial confession. She boldly proclaimed, "I love my husband more than I love my children." Ayelet's article struck a nerve with moms around the country, and some of them are here to talk to her about it. “

Oprah: I think a lot of people interpreted it, or misinterpreted, that article that you wrote…when you say I love my husband more, I think a lot of women heard you don't love your children.

Mothers in the discussion: Why can't you say to them I love your daddy different? Why is there such an obsession of putting somebody before the other?

Ayelet: [In the article] I was responding to what I have seen as a replacement. And what I say is I'm in love with my husband but I love my children. I mean the truth is, yes, of course you love people differently. But what I'm saying is I don't think what we're seeing nowadays is people loving differently. I think we're seeing people loving more.
(from http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/A-Mothers-Love_1/, captured 8/28/2010)


I love Ayelet Waldman. What’s not to love about a woman who gets booed on Oprah for declaring her love for her husband? Or for writing a series of excellent novels based on her “maternal ambivalence”? (That has to be my new favorite phrase). Yet, reluctant as I am to turn from Waldman and her stance on all things maternal, the focus of this blog entry centers on the quantification of love. As the “mothers in discussion” at the Oprah show asked, “Why is there such an obsession of putting somebody before the other?” Waldman noted “I was responding to what I have seen as a replacement.” My interpretation of this statement is that our culture has replaced the ability to love differently with a scale on which the balance of love could be measured, some receiving a fair quantity, and some found lacking.

Love eludes easy measurements such as height, weight or length. It cannot be regarded as a particle or a wave, either of which can be pinned into numbers by enterprising physicists. Perhaps it can be defined more closely as a piece of music, as variable as a symphony in which hundreds of instruments are employed. Between two different people whose own harmonies are unique the interplay of sound must have an infinite number of possible dynamics, and the relationships between a wife and her friends, parents, siblings, spouse, children must have exponentially more probable manifestations. There is no possibility of comparison, no right, wrong, or equal.

When people say to their children, “I love you all the same,” I hope they are not lying or being purposefully dense, but just simplifying the truth for their offspring. The truth – for me – being that it is impossible to love three different people the same way. I love each of my children passionately and with my whole heart, but I do not love them the same. They are different individuals at different stages of growth, and it would be impossible to say that each tugs on my heart in exactly the same way.

It also troubles me when people say “I love my child through adoption exactly the same as I love my biological children.” How is that remotely possible? My relationship with my biological children began in my body, where they grew attuned to my rhythms and preferences and I began to understand theirs. My relationship with my youngest child began through dreams and photos, progress reports and prayers, only beginning in person when he had reached the age of 23 months. For my two older children I am, for better or worse, the only mother figure they have ever had and they have no doubt or mixed feelings about my permanence. I am the third mother-figure in my youngest child’s life, and I doubt that I represent the same type of permanence and constancy to him, though I hope that I will over the long haul.

I have no favorites among my children; though my journey with my biological children has been easier in some ways, it has not been “better”. On any particular day, in any particular month, one child has more needs than another, one skips through her days while another trudges. The situation can always be reversed; in the blink of an eye their fortunes, and their outlook, can change. Our love does not waver with these changing conditions, but it can be stretched and challenged by the needs of the children, the needs of husbands or wives. Love relationships that are tested by circumstance can emerge stronger, like arm muscles flexed in carrying a baby or a toddler.

I suppose what people really mean when they say “I love my children the same” is that they have no favorites. Good enough, I suppose, but in the interest of truth and honesty let us say that love relationships between different people are of necessity different. Each relationship has its own issues, pressure points, hot spots and soft spots. Let’s forgive ourselves for loving each person differently, our spouses and our children, our siblings and our parents. Life should not be characterized by amount and sameness, but by quality and by uniqueness.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

School's In: Time to Focus

Focus (v): 1. To concentrate effort or attention on a particular thing or aspect of a thing 2. To adjust your vision so that you see clearly and sharply, or become adjusted for clear vision

Yesterday I had two and a half hours of completely uninterrupted quiet time. Emails disappeared, to-do lists shrunk, meals virtually planned themselves and the junk draw got cleaned (OK – not that last one). I can safely say that I have not been so productive in over two months, and was relieved that such a level of productivity was still within my grasp. Our summer was wonderful and full of adventure, but so replete with exhausting activity and distracting demands that my head whirled like a kaleidoscope – eyes full of swinging, scrapping sun-screened kids and ears full of their cacophony – bickering challenges, shouts of joys, cries of frustration. I profoundly missed the time to concentrate on one task and the energy to see clearly what needed to be done and how to accomplish it.

Now that school has started I have approximately ten hours per week to myself, and another fifteen hours with just one child. I have plans to write, read difficult books, teach a few classes, and train for Spring Swimming Nationals (at the Masters level – a 40th birthday present to myself). As I planned and plotted for this time, anticipating its arrival as our fish quivers for its three daily morsels of food, I tended to place school-day stillness on a pedestal and ignore the benefits of summer’s “kaleidoscope mind.” A line from John Elder Robison’s (http://www.johnrobison.com/) book, 'Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's' poked me to the benefits of unfocused time:

“As I recall my own development, I can see how I went through periods where my ability to focus inward and do complex calculations in my mind developed rapidly. When that happened, my ability to solve complex technical or mathematical problems increased, but I withdrew from other people. Later, there were periods where my ability to turn toward other people and the world increased by leaps and bounds. At those times, my intense powers of focused reasoning seemed to diminish.” (208)

Robison writes about his particular journey with Asperger’s and the fine line between his amazing gifts with circuitry and sound, and his ability to socialize. Yet I found his words applicable to my situation, as well. When I give myself over to my children, their friends, our extended family and our family friends, as I do in the summer, I lose the ability (and time) to focus on a specific task. Yet I gain flexibility, better relationships, shared memories, and new experiences. In the past I have had a tendency toward tunnel vision: over-focusing, if you will, on the task at hand. I have prioritized goals and accomplishments over relationships and pursued depth rather than breadth in my life. I take a rebuke in this statement Robison also wrote, “Creative genius never helped me make friends, and it certainly didn’t make me happy. My life today is immeasurably happier, richer, and fuller as a result of my brain’s continuing development (toward relationships)” (210).

So here’s to well-roundedness, and in particular the quiet time of school days. Let’s hope the muscle memory of slower-paced summer days stays with us as we launch into a new season of focus.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Camping Report

In the few moments available before children wake up to demand milk, TV, cereal, etc., I wanted to record our successful camping trip. Camping with good friends and their age-compatible children certainly assisted in making our adventure fun, filling (way too much food!) and enjoyable for all. Despite the altitude issues of camping at nearly 11,0000 feet (none of the adults slept the first night), we adjusted fairly rapidly and were blessed with clear skies and beautiful starshine at night.

Our intrepid band of hikers embarked early Saturday morning - to the distress of fellow campers still holding on to sleep - and tackled Mt. Sherman, which is the 'easiest' 14,000 foot peak to climb, according to Rob's guide book. We drove to 12,000 feet and tackled the trail, which rapidly ascended and turned from dirt to rock. We had five children with us; a 9-year-old, an 8-year-old,and three 7 - year - olds, as well as five adults (for whom age is irrelevant). Everyone in our party climbed as high as the ridge and benefited from amazing views over the surrounding mountain ranges. When the cold wind hit and threatened to blow off the lightest member of our party, half the group called an honorable retreat.

I was surprised and pleased, though a bit worried, when our 7-year-old son took off up the mountain without hesitation, outstripping his father and even leaving us entirely to hike with a good friend when we waited for his sister. She was tormented with anxiety about the steepness and the windiness of the climb, and though I assured her we could call it a day with all virtue intact, she saw her brother and father ahead and decided to persevere. I held her hand, and abandoned all my own anxiety for her sake (this works for me in flying, too; amazing what kids can get you to do). She pushed on up the mountain with tears in her eyes and a quiver in her lip . . .I don't think she enjoyed it much but she accomplished the peak and prevented her brother from holding this achievement over her head.

I am amazed by the children and so pleased that they can accompany us now on almost any adventure. We do have a few more years to get our four-year-old up to speed, but now that I know it can be done, I am confident that he'll be climbing and hiking with us soon. Blessings to all and thanks for a wonderful summer. Now off to school for the kids and back to some focused intellectual activity for mom!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wild Montana Skies

Each morning at our rental house in West Yellowstone we were awakened by a pair of trumpeter swans which flew directly overhead, emitting their odd call as they passed. The kids, waking up to the whoosh of wings and the trumpets, named the birds "Alarm" and "Cluck." On a morning in a middle of the week I also heard the unearthly bellows of an elk bugling in the woods not far away; the odd brass section of elk and swan echoed along the ridge and mesmerized me. Ten days in Montana also brought multiple bald eagle and bison sightings, encounters with plenty of geothermal marvels, and an unforgettable canoe trip down the Missouri River.

On our last day of vacation we took our two oldest children down the river in canoes; I piloted with our daughter aboard and Rob captained the vessel with our older son. Both paddled well, though still struggling a bit to get the oar in the water at the proper depth and over the edge of the boat without clunking their arms or torquing their small bodies. As they weigh substantially less than we do, the front of the boat could act like a sail, catching the wind and blowing ceaselessly to the shallows. Needless to say, it was a good workout for the adults in the family, and that was before the wind picked up and the lightning flashed in the distance.

As the storm rapidly bent down on us, my husband called for our trio of boats (his brother and girlfriend were also with us) to get off the water. With some difficulty I made to join them; it is hard to steer and paddle with storm blow against you! My daughter and I left paddles, socks and water bottles aboard the canoe, dragged it out of the water and went to join the rest of our team in a make-shift tent. We had a tarp which we anchored in between the other two canoes and underneath the rippling, crackling tarp we stayed mainly dry. The kids' eyes went wide as saucers and they teetered between glee and fright. The needle tipped to fright when my husband and his brother peeked out of the tarp to see our third canoe blow right out into the river - and flip over. "We've lost it!" yelled my brother-in-law, and my daughter burst into tears. "My socks!" she said.

I assured her that we could buy more socks, and we played "I made a cake but I made a mistake . . ." while their dad went abroad in the storm to find the canoe and bring it back, if he could. As the wind died down we felt better, though I battled with my worry about Rob outside in the rain and lightning. (This happened ten years before at the same family reunion, though upriver, and he had stood beneath the river cottonwood trees during the storm. We all thought he would be crushed by falling branches, but he didn't move. Stubborn, for sure).

In the end, the canoe was recovered with the help of a kayak in our larger party, and Rob half paddled, half dragged it more than half-mile upriver back to our hiding spot, where the storm was finally ending. With glee we resumed our journey, even spotting a final bald eagle in the last hour. The canoe trip put an underline to my thought for the week; being out in the park and the big sky areas of Montana makes me feel small, and that feeling is not unwelcome. It's a relief to recognize how little control we actually have in this world; the best we can do is prepare like crazy and then go with the flow. I need to carry this thought, and this feeling into other areas of my life. At home, in my house, where a storm might bring a power failure but little else, we rule as demigods and then are surprised when things don't go our way. Outside in more untamed parts we are reminded that Nature has the upper hand.

Something to keep in mind as we head up to camp at 10,000 feet this weekend and hike a 14,000 foot mountain - I'll let you know how that goes.