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Zen and the Art of Motherhood

By Margaret Renkl

MARCH 15, 1999:  Sometimes parenthood seems like little more than an exhausting exercise in repetition. Every morning you wake up facing just as many dirty diapers, just as many hungry stomachs, just as many outraged tears as you faced the day before.

You spend your breath repeating, like a mantra, "Take turns, now, kids." On every trip to the grocery store you buy the same things. Every evening you read Good Night Moon another seven times. Then you go to sleep so you can slog through the routine again the next day.

A lot of parents aren't ready for the day-in-day-out sameness of life with young kids because it works in such direct opposition to the heightened pace of modern life. Some non-parents might argue that the modern world offers all manner of diversions never dreamed of in the past--television, Pop-Tarts, talking Barney dolls--but I still say motherhood is a throwback to another age. Barney isn't a true innovation in the life of a ritualist (and what toddler is not a ritualist?); Barney just gets subsumed into the ritual. A child who cannot read or tell time will still sit down in front of the television precisely at 3 o'clock, even if his mother lies without remorse ("Oh, shoot, honey. We missed Barney today.") and proposes a different activity.

There are probably parents out there who luxuriate in this kind of stasis, who can, without irritation, play peekaboo as many times as it takes for a 9-month-old to grow bored with the game (10 times? 15 times? 199 times?), but I confess I am not one of them. After I've played peekaboo a few times, I'm ready to move on to something else. I want variety. I want progress. I want to check a few items off the to-do list.

But young children aren't interested in progress. A little blob of applesauce slips off the spoon, and immediately the baby gaily smears it left and right, left and right, again and again, across the expanse of the high-chair tray. So much for Mama's interest in moving on from lunch to the next order of business. Substitute pureed peaches for applesauce and seconds later Mama's wearing the peaches on her face. So much for variety.

None of this is entirely irritating, not even for a wholehearted modern woman. If it were, every modern child would be an only child, and just witness all those second- and third-born yuppie kids out there. For me at least, what determines whether I'm a sleek and satisfied medieval mother, or a gaunt and haunted modern one, is the season.

With the right attitude, springtime can suggest something almost Zen-like in the repetitions of parenthood. It can remind us that infinite variation is possible within endlessly repeated patterns. Every springtime day, even in suburbia, something new is happening in the yard that wasn't happening there the day before. Soft green things are shooting out of the hard dirt, out of the dark tips of the stolid trees. Little birds and animals materialize in the branches, gathering seeds and sticks and scolding each other. One morning you wake up and the pear tree is dressed for a party, with thousands of hovering honeybees drunk on her perfume.

In this context, it's actually possible for even a toe-tapping, list-making mother like me to feel enraptured by her own participation in those gorgeous natural rhythms, even as I'm wiping one more dirty butt or one more snotty nose. With the warm weight of the baby balanced on one hip and the warm sun settling on my shoulders, and the warm air of the back yard filled with delighted squeals, I take a deep breath and feel, well, warm. Happy.

The transformation of gray winter into bright springtime reminds me every year that all this apparent repetition happens simultaneously with momentous change. A baby, too, is constantly transforming himself--from an uncoordinated newborn lump, to a budding athlete who can crawl out of the high chair; from an inarticulate howler to a charming waver of bye-byes. Even if it doesn't seem that way at the time, the plump infant cooing in her crib becomes, in only the blink of an eye, a stringbean of a 5-year-old dashing in the classroom door.

It's for this reason that parents are constantly cautioned to slow down, to notice and recognize the fleeting beauty which exists in perfect counterpoint to all that soured milk, vomit, and green dung babies produce in such copious amounts. We must take the dirty diapers, the received wisdom goes, because they come attached to such darling little bottoms. If we wish away the piles of laundry, we're wishing away our children's very childhood.

But springtime actually suggests a more helpful way of looking at this conundrum. It's an answer that runs counter to our modern notions of milestones, progress, and the management of time. If the Western idea is to accept the bad with the good, the Eastern one is more encompassing: There's no bad, and there's no good. There's only life.

In truth, I have about the most un-Zen-like approach to life of anyone I know. But motherhood is teaching me (painfully, painfully, for I'm a very slow learner) to embrace a different kind of order, a seemingly chaotic order in which nothing belongs in a particular place, and the messiness of love is the organizing principle in which the small wiggling bodies of my children belong everywhere--in the sandbox, in the mud, in the melted chocolate ice cream, and clambering all over me.

This is something different from, and something more than, taking the bad with the good of parenthood. Taking the bad with the good is changing the dirty diaper with a certain kind of acceptance, a shrugged, "Oh, well, another mess to clean up." It's taking a deep breath of fresh air, then unfastening the tapes and hurrying through with the task quickly and efficiently.

Nothing wrong with that. In any case, it's preferable to saying crossly, "Are you never going to use the potty like a big boy?" But how much better it would be if the apparent stasis and repetitions of motherhood began to seem like acts of meditation, a quiet kind of letting go. How much better to exist in the instant, in only that one instant, completely outside of time.

Accepting the Zen of motherhood is changing the dirty diaper and actually reveling in the act itself and not in its resolution. It's marveling at the slow, miraculous way the perfect pink skin emerges under your own ministering hands, at the way the plump feet wave around so happily in the air, at the way the impatient baby corkscrews, laughing, away from his mother and has to be trapped and turned, trapped and turned, again and again before the diaper game ends with the baby all clean and sweet once more.

My own life, not to mention my very self, is not set up to experience such moments of transcendence with any frequency. When you're a person who's spent about a thousand dollars at Target on nothing more than plastic baskets and bins to store things in, it's not easy to forget about order. In springtime such moments do come, though--an instant here, an instant there--and when they come they're pure delight. They hint at what's possible. They remind me to let go of what I want, of what I plan, and revel instead in what I have.

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