When Lily was five and I was taking steps to leave her father, I attended a spiritual retreat in Sedona. There were two girls in that group who were accompanying their mothers, one nine, and the other four. I was taken by the dynamics between these mothers and their daughters—their relationship seemed much more solid than ours. In addition, I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking my daughter to a retreat! I was so impressed that these little girls could witness the adults’ spiritual growth, be present while adults made key discoveries and took important steps in their adult lives, and hold space with patience and reverence.
My daughter’s not like that, I thought. And our relationship isn’t like theirs; it’s not as deep, not as close. She prefers her dad, I realized, with regret. For the past three years he had put her to bed every night, because I simply didn’t want to anymore. We spent every day together. I had breastfed for a good long time (some even said too long), and after that, my mothering day ended when her dad arrived home from work. I would make some dinner and leave to teach yoga, a vastly more interesting activity than giving a toddler a bath. Lily and I had a certain rapport, a certain respect for each other, but I had never realized the depth of what we didn’t have until I sat in that circle with those two mothers and their daughters. When it was my turn to speak, I opened my mouth to verbalize that epiphany, to tell the 40 other people in the circle what I wished I could create with my daughter, but instead of talking, I wept. I wasn’t merely moved to tears. I wept deeply, loudly, for what I didn’t have. In retrospect, I grieved. At the end of the retreat, my intention was to return home and create what I wanted. I had no idea how; I just knew what I wanted it to look and feel like. I arrived back in Chicago open to new possibilities.
As a yoga teacher, I begin by simply being present, by listening and feeling. As a mother, I began by listening to Lily’s words, and to the feelings beneath them, wondering how we’d embark on our new path of connection. To my surprise, when I became fully present, I sensed our connection needed…a massage. I had another epiphany: I’d been giving the best of what I had to offer to my yoga clients. After Lily had stopped breastfeeding, I had relinquished the bedtime ritual to her dad, or was simply willing Lily to sleep, on the rare occasions when he was out in the evening. I sensed that just a few minutes of physical connection at the end of the day would be a gift to my daughter, just like it was to my yoga clients.
For Lily’s first massage, I warmed the lotion in my hands, then made smooth circles on her little back. Within the first minute, she lifted her head and gazed back at me in such surprise and wonder that I too had a moment of wonder: What had I done? Were my hands too cold?
“Mommy! This feels sooo good!” She was in awe of the glory of reverent touch! It was so easy--her back was tiny, my hands comparatively large, and the connection I wanted was growing already, nonverbally. In the midst of my weeping in the Sedona circle, I didn’t imagine it would be this easy, pleasant, and fast to create what I had longed for. Our relationship grew from there. It grew from listening, from being conscious, and from teaching Lily to be conscious, rather than obedient. When asked what my “parenting style” was, I called it “enlightened parenting.”
Enlightened parenting is not the easiest path. It is certainly not well worn. It would have been easier for me to go on autopilot and parent like I was parented, with unbending authority, flavored with anger and punctuated by shame. Oh, I’m pretty good at unbending, angry authority, but I knew that in this unyielding scenario, growing girls either have to sneak around, or get in trouble if they’re caught. For other mothers, it is even easier to do the opposite: just say yes, because it causes fewer conflicts and fewer tears and no policing. That becomes their default, because isn’t life easier with a happy daughter? It can be. But what about those times when “yes” simply isn’t an option?
Sometimes, afraid to stifle her daughter’s will, a mother lets her daughter do and have what she wants. But when daughter becomes a teenager, right when the stakes are highest, she doesn’t know how to set her own limits. The mother’s goal of having an empowered daughter—a daughter whose will is not stifled--is thwarted by the daughter herself: her will to get what she wants is overdeveloped, and has become stronger than her self-discipline, her inner voice. She rushes to get what she wants, because she’s used to it. In this scenario a teenager can find herself in situations for which she is not emotionally ready.
Wherever your default parenting setting lies on the spectrum from strict to permissive, the role of “mother” is thick with expectations. I remember a significant moment when Lily was nine. I had said something she disagreed with and began to walk away. Glancing back, I noticed an expression on her face that I’d never seen before, an expression that implied, maybe you’re not actually the smartest and most beautiful woman in the world. It was arresting. It felt like the foreshadowing of adolescence that all those well-meaning strangers had warned me about. How would we navigate that? I decided then and there to do it consciously, and with support. I looked around for books, for information, for support groups, and found none. I realized then that I would have to create them!