Becoming a mother was my first cognizant desire. I could imagine my belly round and full. Playing house, I was always the mama, only occasionally interested in being the child. I cooked and kept my playhouse in order as if I knew exactly what to do. Mud pies from the sandbox were the specialty of the house.
As I got older and became interested in boys, in hindsight, the heightened feelings of ‘love’ never came close to the romantic ideas I had about having babies. I had crushes, fell in and out of love with broken hearts on both sides, yet nothing quite gave me the glow like the thought of children. My friend, Mark, older than I with two small children, invited me to ride up to visit some mutual friends in the hills of Tennessee one day. It was an hour or so from my home town in Alabama. I slipped into the role of mother, like pearls on a lady. The children were adorable and I liked the feeling of being a family. That day I realized that I was made for the job.
My life carried me to Europe that year. Studies were postponed. Something more artistic was calling me.Our lives call us, take us on journeys of exploration and give us the unpredictable. Every possible love story that followed was determined by what kind of father they would be. If he did not pass, it would not go far. When I look back, I see that my intentions at that time were more for the relationship of family than the relationship of husband or companion.
It happens quite quickly, when you know. How one can be sure at such a young age is speculative. In fact,I remember asking my mother, “how do you know?”
“How do you know what? If it’s true love? If he’s the right man? Sometimes you have to jump in with both feet”, she said. So at 22, I jumped. He was older than me by 9 years, cultured (worldly), educated (brilliant) and kind. And most importantly, responsible. Finding a good mate in the late ‘70’s was no easy feat. Being a flower child, I’m sure my parents thought they would lose me to a street musician (nothing wrong with that) or worse yet, a cult. I surprised them. I chose a responsible worldly business man from NYC. I cared for him, and loved him as he loved me. Yet, I could hardly trust that I knew anything about relationships being so young. What I did know, is that he would be a good father, and I was right.
We bought our first house together, then married one year later. I had already become pregnant a few months before the wedding, much to my delight, but also to my worry. I had to tell my father, a Southern gentleman, on the day before the wedding that I was with child. I was the first daughter of his to get married, even though I wasn’t the oldest. Perhaps, away from the south, he could handle the news and the joy easier. He was after all, a gentleman, a GREAT father himself, who’s only intention was for my happiness (and to be cared for). He liked my betrothed and approved. Surprisingly, they had the same birthday, 30 years apart.
Grace flooded my being. The imagined glow is true. I felt like the Madonna herself. Watching one’s belly grow is miraculous. Feeding oneself becomes a priority every step of the way. As someone interested in good food and cooking, I was in heaven. Macrobiotic at the time, I didn’t eat meat or dairy, so I had to be extra diligent about getting protein, calcium and daily good nutrition. Never mind, that it wasn’t easy to eat much in 100 F. weather that summer I was pregnant for the first time. I indulged in sweet fruits, leafy lettuces, occasional peaches and cottage cheese..(my childhood favorite) sunshine and swimming. It was a happy time, even though the heat at 9 months pregnant was intense. Being a southern girl, I was used to it. Not to mention, Colorado offers a less humid heat.
A box of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano’s disappeared one evening and I went straight into labor. The time had come. Jeff and I had studied the ‘Bradley Method’ of natural childbirth, based on deep breathing. I wanted to birth at home, but acquiesced to the birthing room at the local hospital. My in-laws were less tolerant than my own family and both my sister- in-law and brother-in-law were Pediatricians. I didn’t want to fail anyone, neither myself, nor the baby. I was still young and wanted to start out on the right foot with my new and extending family. We were lucky to have such an alternative in Boulder. It was a fine compromise. I’m sure Jeff was relieved. His family was less sure of me than mine was of him.
The labor was long. Nothing can really prepare you for it. That’s why they have drugs. Yet, I wanted nothing of the sort. To this day, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. Birth hurts. It engages every part of your being inside and out. Your bones expand, thankfully, due to hormones that are released to soften everything, (so that even when you lay down at night, you feel your lower back vertebrae float into position.)
When birthing you become an animalistic, a very human animal. You lose touch with reality. The veil between this world and that also becomes soft and thin. You moan with every contraction to ride the waves of pain. It scares you as it gets more intense. Your legs are spread eagle and you don’t care, you want to rip off your gown, or anything constricting. Every muscle in your body is calling for your attention. You do not want to be distracted by voices or sounds that might bother you, being acutely aware of the task at hand. This is not the time to be nice. The moment is poignant. What has been growing in that precious belly, so much a part of you, that you have so loved and nurtured, bathed and anointed from the outside, fed and rested, is coming out. Soon to be separate of you, yet still dependent. Everything will change. Your mind tries to grasp all of the emotions at once.
Girl to woman. Woman to mother. Instant growing up. There is an immediate loss of innocence. No more playing house- this is the real deal and it hurts. It’s beyond excruciating and beyond your control. You are possessed with an energy that you don’t recognize, a power that you didn’t know you had, coming from the depths of your being. You breathe and breathe, as long and slow as you can, so grateful that your breath is your friend, and scream once in a while, low tones, forcing that energy down into your pelvis. You wait, barely able to catch your breath before it comes again and… again… in my case, three hours of pushing when the head is in the mouth of the cervix, the tightest spot, with seemingly no progress. The infamous stage of transition. Not in, not out. No resting easily in this painful place. The pure surrender it takes to relax is like trying to find the eye of a hurricane. Then with one big breath and a concentrated push!.. The baby slides out. Reality slips back in. A small being is placed on your chest, all slippery and wet, eyes wide and awake. No drugs dulled either of us, we cried together, both shaking, a new mother and child.
Emily Sarah Markel. M (Em) for Jeff’s father, and Sarah (after my favorite aunt). 5. 1 1/2 oz. 21 inches. 23 hours of labor. It was the hardest thing I have ever endured in my life and the most blissful. To this day, I see it as the single most important experience teaching me about my own inner strength. A strength I didn’t know I had. After that, I felt anything was possible. A 5 pound baby is small, but her little fists were under her chin making her shoulders hard to fit through the birth canal. It took longer than it should have. Just long enough for me to pop through to a different dimension to access a deeper and more confident part of myself.
Emily was a lovely child. Sensitive, sweet, delicate and a daddy’s girl. She basically fit into his big hand when she was born, legs dangling off his arm. Motherhood was everything I thought it would be; completely enjoyable. My mothering instincts were intact. It was an idealistic time of staying at home, cooking three meals a day. Walks in the pram, playing, totally joyful.
I was introduced to the Waldorf School which became a natural segue into the imagination of childhood. We were immersed into a world of wonder. My mother came to visit for a few weeks, so happy to spend time with her first grandchild. A week into her visit, she died of a heart attack in her sleep at 61.
Emily found her first. “Mama..grandma won’t wake up.” She was 3. There are certain things that run in the woman’s line. This is one of them. Her mother, my grandmother, had died in childbirth when my mother was only 3.
It was a first degree shock. Running to the room of my mother, I found her in the bed, sitting up, light on, with a book in her hand and glasses on her face. Her eyes were open. I shook her. She was stiff. I screamed in shock. In less than a second I understood that she was my mother, the body from which I came and now she was no longer “at home”. Yet, I felt her presence in the room. A protective mom, she would never let me watch gory movies..and yet, she died while visiting me in my home. Dramatic, but not gory. You could say that showed me that even death is a part of life. Some months later I realized, that she gave me a huge gift~ a conscious shock~we are not our bodies. I was 26.
A few months later, I conceived. This time, it would be a winter baby. Even though I was grieving, I was happy to be pregnant again. Emily was an easy darling and our family was growing. I accompanied Jeff on a trip to the British Isles, visiting England, Scotland and Ireland. I kissed the blarney stone, ate soda bread and drank Guiness, the liquid bread. It was stormy with sheets of rain, moody and reflective. This time I wanted a home birth.
I developed an upper respiratory flu towards the end of my pregnancy. False labor was common. Knowing what I had been through the last time, I was worried that I might be in for it, if I had no strength. It went on for a few weeks. I started to feel some better, but I was tiring of the false labor pains I was having. That night, I felt them again and I said to the baby, “if you are going to come, you better come now”. And the head moved down in that moment and real labor started. It was midnight.
Graham Calder Markel. 7.4 oz. 23 in. was born at 8:30 am. the next morning, looking like a wise old man and a long lost friend. My labor was not as dramatic. It was shorter and less intense, but intense nevertheless, yet blissful again in spite of the pain. A natural birth. I would not choose to do it any other way.
Becoming a mother twice has been the two most incredible experience of my life. Even though I have gone on to create and offer experiences of various sorts for others all over the world and have seen and done some extraordinary things myself, I sit here on Mother’s Day 2010, thinking of my children, now grown. Emily is 29, with her own two children, making me now a grandmother. Graham is 26, a writer and world traveler. Both are kind, witty, talented, loving souls. I love who they are and are becoming. We are close. They are close. They are my heart.
Even though I am no longer with their father, he was the perfect choice. Bringing children into the world is a big responsibility, yet not a burden. I consider myself an unconventional mother. I have broken a few norms to save them from the narrow and predictable, preferring to offer a different view. These words by poet David Whyte inspire me as a person, their mother on the path.
“ Take all the elements that you find in your life and make something of it. No existential disappointment here. No gospel of despair. Be yourself! You are a sacred frontier of experience that has never appeared before in the whole of time and will never appear again. There is no one else who can occupy your corner of creation and taste and see the flavor of things the way you do. The act of participating and appreciating the world in the way that you do, is an act of incarnation. All the strategic works you do will come out of that frontier. But without it, everything becomes a second willful act merely of self necessity.
Get back to the core that is occurring underneath it all, the invisible foundation that you will build your life on. A radical simplification on what brings flavor to your life, a fearless harvest of what makes you, you. “
ps. don’t forget to brush your teeth.
May 10th, 2020
Ten years ago I wrote this piece about becoming a mother. I read it today for the first time in 10 years.
I would like to add an update.
Emily is almost 40, an accomplished jeweler, and still happily married. Makena is 14 and Judah is 12. Makena wrote a text this morning asking me to facetime. Could I show her how to make scrambled eggs? She was up all night trying to decide what to serve her mom for breakfast in bed. I almost cried. www.threearrowsboutique.com
Graham is 36, a winemaker living in Portland, Oregon and has his own label. www.buonanottewines.com He’s making a name for himself in the natural wine world.
Me? I am wondering how life will continue to unfold. I made it past 61, the age of my mother when she died. That was a big one. I continue to be inspired by my work designing and directing culinary programs around the world. We are now at the end of the Coronavirus, covid-19 quarantine. It’s the middle of May. I have no idea where my business will now go. Or if it will continue to “go”. I hope so. I have made a home with my partner, David.
Meanwhile, I want to acknowledge all of the ways we are mothered by the earth. She feeds us daily and is supported by the larger cosmos of elementals that look after us. My feeling is this is the mother we need to bow to, to her incredible wisdom, visible and invisible intelligence. May this inward time heal the imbalance of the natural world and give it time to heal. May this in turn, right our relationships to ourselves, to our families and to each other. Let us find a way to more caring to the people far away and people we don’t know. May our mother wings stretch so that all who need love can feel it. Let’s feed each other nourishing food.