This picture of my Mom and me is one of my favorites, and not just because she looks so badass.
Actually, that’s just my Mom’s Listening Face. She’s an intense listener – a committed one. When I was growing up, her bookshelves and nightstand had rows and stacks of communication books: Couple’s Communication, The Dance of Anger…. My siblings and I would tease her when we caught her trying a new technique. “Mom, are you ‘active listening’?” She was serious and sincere. She rarely blinked. She wanted to support and really see you.
People sought out my mother for her listening. I’d find them sitting with her on our couch or around our dining room table when I got home from school. Or I’d see my mother in the rocking chair, eyes closed, nodding, phone pressed to her ear. People showed up with problems, or sorrows, and my Mom simply listened. She might reflect your words back to you. She might check in to make sure she fully understood. But mostly, she let you speak.
When you’re a late talker it helps to have a mom who’s an excellent listener.
I didn’t learn to speak until I was about three and a half. In those days early intervention consisted of my grandfather lighting candles for me in church. People wondered if I was deaf, or slow. My Mom didn’t worry or judge me. She was just patient, in the way that mothers with multiple children learn to be patient. It’ll come. She’ll get there.
I was the fifth child, born two years after my Mom was hospitalized for post-partum depression and psychosis. Everything about my Mom welcoming me into the world was brave, including the way she gave birth. In the labor room, surrounded by the doctor, a nurse, and my Dad, she tried to convince the doctor that it was time to go to the delivery room – she could feel the baby coming -- but the doctor dismissed her. He said there was plenty of time and left the room. Immediately I started to crown. The nurse ran to get the doctor and my petrified Dad fled, too. His first children were born in the 60s, when doctors knocked women out with drugs and Dads waited in separate rooms. He didn’t think he was supposed to be there.
On the table in the labor room, my Mom delivered me herself, alone.
Until I started nursery school, I was basically attached to my Mom. She carried me longer than strangers thought she should; she always made room for me on her lap. This picture was taken before I learned to form full sentences. I’m guessing I was watching my siblings and cousins play. Even though my eyes are twinkling, my posture is protective. I wasn’t yet ready to venture out.
I was born to a Mom who was scared she wasn’t ready either, but still she made space for me. I only have one child. I’ll never understand how my Mom could have welcomed a fifth, especially when she still felt so vulnerable. And not a dainty child, either. I was born messy, pushy. I grunted. Even without words, I insisted. My Mom had to teach me to be more careful and more considerate. But she never shamed what I had to say, however I found a way to say it.
Now I’m a writer. In the dark before my family wakes up, I sit at my own dining room table and explore my deepest feelings. And then I post them on the internet. And after I do and throughout the day, I assume the same posture I had in this photo: My back arches and I wish I could hide. Why did I ever do that?!
My Mom is someone who understands phases and stages and has always clung to faith. And now when I write about the stars, I try to do the same: To honor what’s hard, or scary, or new, but universal, and also somehow meaningful and good. And I use myself as an example. But sometimes five minutes after I’ve written about a feeling or experience I’m already onto the next. So I’ll want to delete what I wrote, because having it out there makes me vulnerable. Five minutes after I post something personal, I’m usually utterly humiliated.
I imagine the doctor in the labor room telling my Mom she was wrong.
When I see this picture I understand why I keep sharing. I was born to a badass and a great listener. I was born to someone contemplative and brave. And in that terrifying act of coming forward, I bridge the small, sacred space between us: The messy, inhibited little girl and the loving, powerful woman, determined to face the truth.