All I Really Need To Know About Mothering I Learned From My Cat

While I raised my children I remember watching myself over-expend energy. I was aware of what I was doing: helping and working, sharing and caring for everyone who needed me. However, it seemed there was never enough time in the day to slow down and provide for myself what I routinely (and for the most part happily) provided for others.

Midnight is missing from this photo. But my three mewing children are all there.

Midnight is missing from this photo. But my three mewing children are all here.

At work I was a skilled and compassionate nurse. At church I invested heart and soul as a primary teacher, den mother, young women’s leader, choir member, whatever I was called to do. At home I was a deeply devoted and exhausted mom to three kids. Honestly, most days I was overwhelmed by all the responsibilities. But I did the best I could. We ate cereal for dinner on really hard days. Other days it was a rotating menu of tuna casserole, spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburger patties with Rice-A-Roni. Taco Time, Arby’s and Stan’s Drive-In fed us more times than I can count. This was a time of endless giving and comparatively little receiving on my part.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t gain anything from serving and loving all those people at work, church and home. I gained a great deal of understanding about the human condition via those relationships. My capacity for love was enlarged because I believe God gave me strength beyond my own when I chose to serve people in need, especially my own children, and that was a good thing. But I learned lessons along the way about how to give and receive in more enriching, nourishing ways, rather than just “on the run.”

Amazingly, the most empowering example of how to be a good mom and good caregiver came from our cat. My daughter named her Midnight because, well, what else can you call a black cat? Midnight was an indoor-outdoor cat, a combination of street cat and diva and I came to love her for this. We had no pets in my own childhood home and I recognized being pet-less was one of many tragedies of my early years. (I’m both sarcastic and serious when I say that, depending on the day). So, I let my kids have pets. Through the years we had gerbils, mice, rabbits, fish, lizards, frogs and the occasional garter snake. But mostly cats. By the way, it turns out cats like to eat frogs, especially in the middle of the night. And then leave the remains in the hallway for you to step on in the dark on your way to the bathroom. Just in case you were wondering.

Anyway, one afternoon I retreated to my bedroom to fold laundry on the bed, away from the sounds of TV and whatever else was going on in the house. It must have been a Saturday because it was mid-day and I was at home. A few days earlier Midnight had given birth to a litter of kittens in a blanket-lined box in my closet. As I folded towels and matched socks, I watched her caring for her newborn kittens. She nursed them, cleaned them, let them cuddle next to her. Then she did something that surprised me. She left her babies.

She got up from where she was lying, stepped over them, and left those newborn-blind, helpless kittens mewing plaintively in their box. They began feeling around, smelling for her, trembling as they tried to walk on tiny paws. And she just walked away. I stopped what I was doing to watch. I remember feeling sorry for the kittens. But I also felt compelled to follow Midnight to see where she was going.

She went to her food dish. She ate. She drank. She went outside and did her business. Then she came back in the living room, found a spot on the floor where a shaft of light had warmed the carpet and she lay down. She cleaned herself, stretched her legs, laid her head on her paws and closed her eyes.

That’s when it hit me. BAM! This cat instinctively cares for herself. No one has to tell her what to do. She doesn’t buy books about feline co-dependence or how to be a good mommy cat. She doesn’t call her cat sister on her cat telephone to cry about how hard it is to create balance in her life. She leaves her kittens safe and sound and follows her natural instincts to care for herself so she can care for her offspring. Period. End of story. Her cat brain does not allow her to over-ride her instincts like a human brain does.

Maybe you were raised in a home with a mom who provided a good example of how to do this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. So, this was a big deal for me. In fact, I was permanently altered that day. Midnight’s example of self-care was all I needed to let go of mommy guilt that held me hostage. I stopped feeling bad about the time I spent in my garden. I made sure to provide regular lunch dates for myself with friends. I joined a writer’s group. I started paying attention to my physical, emotional and spiritual resources and began responding in a more organic, instinctive way to cues of stress and exhaustion. This may be the time when I began taking routine afternoon naps. I no longer made excuses for my particular energy level or lack thereof when it came to church callings. I realized that my own instincts were the landmarks God gave me to define my mothering and care-giving limits.

I also began to understand better that each woman has different capacities and only she can interpret her own inner cues in context of her mothering.

This moment of enlightenment has stayed with me for more than twenty years. Initially, I thought about it every single day. Now, it’s only on occasion. But I do still think about it and remind myself to pay attention to what my body, heart and mind are telling me. I also use the Midnight-the-Mother-Cat allegory to provide support and counsel regarding caregiver burnout for my patients and their families.  I did this just last week for an eighty-year-old spouse of one of our dialysis patients. He became misty-eyed as I told him how I learned about being a good caregiver from my cat. I think Midnight’s example helped him. I hope it will help you too.

 

How do you nurture yourself?

Are you planning ways to provide good self-care during the holidays?

Do you have a cat?

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Equal in Faith: Salt Lake City

Collage 2013-08-26 22_24_40

On Monday I fasted. I fasted for the first time in years. It was completely different than I remember. I remember fasting being about food, about missing food, wanting food and taking a long Sunday nap until I could eat food again. Occasionally, we would fast for something: an illness, fire, job or tragedy. During these times I really did want to comfort the people in need. I thought about them while I fasted….for about 3 minutes before I broke my fast. This Monday’s fast was very different. It was a fast on National Equality Day for the purpose of religious gender equality around the world in collaboration with thousands of women and men of all faiths.

All day I thought about this issue. When my stomach growled in the morning I thought about all of those people around the world that go hungry and thought, “Maybe if women were in charge of religions that number would decrease.” Around noon, on my way to teaching my class, I was thirsty. I saw a water fountain and wanted a drink so badly. This made me think about how few people in the world have access to clean water. I reflected on how many millions of lives are lost because of this one simple issue. I realized that if women were in charge of all of the money, human capital and decision making power of religions around the world, would we solve the world’s largest problems: water, sanitation, education, war, poverty and inequality? By the time I broke my fast in the evening this was not just something I had thought about for a few minutes, it was something that overwhelmed my life. To me, religious gender equality is so much more than having female religious leaders or ordination for women. To me, it is a fundamental path to equality, peace and hope throughout the world.

These were the thoughts I had running through my mind as I entered the pews at the BuddhistTemple in Salt Lake City, Monday, August 26th, along with fifty other comrades. The meeting was conducted brilliantly by Margaret Toscano and we began with the song “Freedom’s Daughter,” sung to the tune of “Hope of Israel”—a song written by Lula Greene Richards during the late 18th Century when the LDS church stood for Women’s Suffrage! The first speaker was Debra Jensen, an LDS woman who shared her story of why she stood for religious gender equality. She started with the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Then she gave us her own answer. When she took fear out of the equation she realized she would absolutely stand for equality. Then she asked, “What are we missing out on because of fear?” Jensen concluded her talk by relating the hunger we all felt after fasting to the hunger women all over the world feel for equality and by urging us to recognize and utilize the privilege we have to stand up for our rights.

The next speaker was Pastor Monica Hall. In a rousing and inspiring display of humor, joy and enthusiasm, Pastor Hall described the journey that her own Presbyterian religion had to go through in order to obtain ordination for women. She, an ordained minister, asked if she was more qualified for her role than her LDS female counterparts? She asked if LDS male members were more qualified than LDS females? She argued that neither was the case. In fact, she argued via beautifully told stories from the scriptures, women were the first to see the resurrected Lord, women were the first appointed apostles, and, finally, women are not neglected by Jesus today either! Pastor Hall then quoted fellow Presbyterian feminist, activist and anthropologist Margaret Mead as saying “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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Pioneers: Just Surviving Their Own Journey

Ours was not a family whose heritage was lauded. Although both maternal and paternal ancestral lines are rich with faithful pioneers, their stories were not recounted during family home evenings in my childhood or held up to remind us of our relative specialness in the Latter-day Saint community. We celebrated pioneer day with other ward-members. I don’t recall it being any more significant in our home than any other ward picnic. That our forebears had been among those saints who suffered and worked their way across the plains to relative freedom in the harsh Utah desert was simply a matter of fact, a remote history of which I was vaguely aware.

I mention this because I’ve heard people say that pioneer day celebrates the heritage of a relatively few Latter-day Saints. I suppose this is true. But, you know what? I only found my place among those good folks out of desperation. It had little to do with family history. And there is a place for everyone who needs or wants a place among her pioneering brothers and sisters, related or not.

I raised my kids as a single woman. I maintained swamp coolers, changed flat tires on my car in six inches of snow (I kid you not), rode my bike to a from work when the car was broken down, killed the occasional rat when the compost pile drew them to the backyard, scraped and painted fifty-year-old true divided-light windows . . . I could go on and on.

One particular day I was fighting with weeds alongside the garage — trying to create a stepping-stone pathway to a side door. It was hot. I was sweating. I was tired and overwhelmed. I was pretty much ready to curse God and die because I’d had it with how hard my life was. I remember crying as I worked. Literally. (You know how pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked? It was like that. Only crying.) Somewhere in the midst of my angst I began to pray for help and strength. I spoke aloud as I worked. I told God how unfair it was that LDS men could look to the scriptures and find all manner of good male examples of faithful endurance, but women had nothing. Nothing by comparison anyway.

“Seriously!” I whined, “What’s up with that?”

As you might imagine (because this is, after all, a metaphorical pioneer tale) the heavens opened and, with characteristic kindness and generosity, I was reminded of something my little sister had given me earlier that year: an excerpt of journal entries from my great, great – I honestly don’t know how many greats – grandmother, Sarah Pippen Jolley. Sarah had come to Utah with the early saints. I stopped my work and went to the house post-haste to search for the document. When I found it and read it, I wept and wept and wept. Kind of like pioneer children.

Here are some of her words:

Broken Wagon Wheels 1846, we left Nauvoo, crossed the river on the 5th of May into Iowa, Van Buren County. There we lived a little over two years. We had traveled around until we had not much to travel on, but a large family. We were getting ready to start for Salt Lake City when my husband was taken sick and was ill twenty days. He died on the 29th of April, 1849. Then I was left with ten children, no home, among strangers and a babe in my arms three months old. I was broken up. When he was on his deathbed he would tell me what he wanted me to do, a little at a time. He said he was going to leave me for a time, but he wanted me, as soon as I could, to go to the valleys of the mountains to the bosom of the Church and bring the children with me. I buried him the 1st day of May at Kearoch Way graveyard, Van Buren County, Iowa.

The second day of July the children and I started for Council Bluffs.

Sarah is my grandmother. She is also your grandmother. She is Everywoman.

She couldn’t possibly know that her life, her humble, often meaningless life with its particular hardships, would find me a hundred-and-some-years later in my backyard, screaming to the sky for a crumb of feminist hope in the scriptures, for a God-given example of how to be a woman in the world. All she was doing was surviving her own journey. And writing a few words about it. That’s all any of us can do. We are all pioneers. We have no idea how the actions we take now will offer hope, strength or greater freedom for those who come after us–perhaps many generations after us. But we do it. Just like Sarah.

You are part of my family and I am part of yours. We’re on this journey together.

Wagons ho, sisters! Wagons ho!

 

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When Good Women Do Nothing

boots_grayFriday Night
It’s an unfamiliar scene, I’m at a country dancing bar, surrounded by cowboy hats and boots, listening to twangy music that’s foreign to me.  If it sounds like I’m not enjoying myself, I am. Partner dancing-  country, swing, and ballroom- was one of my favorite pastimes in high school and college. Although that was awhile ago, I still love it and country dancing is a popular type of partner dancing in Arizona.  Unfortunately, my husband is not interested in joining me, so I go with my cousin when she visits, which he doesn’t seem to mind. This means it the second time in my adult life I’ve been to a country bar. What I find are couples  dancing the two step and country swing, spinning and twirling around the dance floor.
This time, as I watch the dance floor to see which guys know how to lead, and waiting for one of them to ask me to dance, I get bored and ask a guy next to me if he knows how to dance. Unfortunately, it’s so loud he doesn’t hear my question and thinks I’ve just asked him to dance. Which wouldn’t be a problem if he could dance, and was sober. But, I’ve just lost the Texas Roulette and this guy is not a winner. He’s holding my hand and back SUPER tightly and swaying around like a drunk person.

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Mormon Male Privilege and How to Make Apparent Gender Disparity in the Church

Many people are concerned with a very basic question right now: Why do some women feel unequal in the church? A few years ago I wrote a post for LDS WAVE about why I feel unequal. While this was not an exhaustive list, it made apparent many of the gender disparities that we often take for granted.

Another way to make inequality apparent is to talk about privilege. In academia there is a lot of literature on male privilege and white privilege—those unacknolwedged advantages that men and majority ethnicities gain from women’s and minorities’ disadvantages. An important step in lessening, mitigating and ending this discrimination is acknowledging it. It is sometimes easier to see that others have different gender roles or even that women have some disadvantages. The truly difficult thing to recognize is the concomitant truth: what aspects of being male are advantageous?

Do not despair, this is not an attack on men. Rather it is a mental exercise in trying to see those aspects of gender inequality that are normally hidden in our religious culture. Men (and women alike) are taught not to recognize our privileges or as Dr. Peggy McIntosh puts it the “invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. [Male] privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” (McIntosh 1988). It is not the fault of the holder of these privileges that he has them. However, it is our moral and ethical duty to learn to recognize, mitigate and lessen them for greater religious gender equality.

I decided to try to identify some of the daily effects of these advantages in order to answer the question: What is it like to have Mormon male privilege? (Many of these points have corollaries in literature on white and male privilege).

As a Mormon Male:

  1. My odds of receiving a leadership calling compared to females of my same age, experience and spirituality are skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the calling, the larger the odds are skewed.
  2. My odds of being asked to speak at church functions compared to females of my same age, experience and spirituality are skewed in my favor. The larger the forum, the more my odds are skewed.
  3. My church leaders are people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the calling, the more this is true.
  4. When I ask to “see the person in charge,” odds are that I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
  5. I can go home from most leadership meetings feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  6. I can be pretty sure that a disagreement with a woman is more likely to jeopardize her chances for advancement in leadership positions and her reputation as a good Mormon than it will jeopardize mine.
  7. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my gender on trial. If I fall short as a missionary, gospel doctrine teacher, or general conference speaker I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.
  8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my gender.
  9. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my gender is not the problem.
  10. I am never asked to speak for or represent “the” perspective of all the people of my gender.
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Memory Capsules: The Robes I Have Worn and the Parts I Have Played

1) When I was a child, my siblings and I would act out the nativity story on Christmas Eve, as per one of our family’s traditions. My youngest brother always played the babe, Jesus; my brother Joseph always played the betrothed Joseph; my oldest sister always claimed the prized (and perhaps lone) female role of Mary. Another fair haired sister generally played the angel, leaving me and the remaining sister as shepherds. We wore headdresses in the form of bath towels and robes in the form of sheets, and braided our respective long, dark hair in front of our faces as beards. (If I had a picture, I promise I would share.) I don’t recall resenting this repeated casting too much (though I did dream of being Mary), because if you have to be a shepherd, there was no one better to be a shepherd with. Still, I do recall noticing that there weren’t that many parts for girls.

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