Freedom. It’s not only one of my deepest personal values, it’s also one of my Core Desired Feelings (CDFs).
As someone who finds it deeply, deeply important to walk her talk, the question of how I would live out my truest values and deepest desires as I walked through parenthood was on my mind even before I was pregnant.
Freedom. I desire to feel a sense of freedom in every domain of my life–in my relationships, with my money, in how I schedule my time, with creativity and career.
But having a kid? Every parent I ever heard talking about parenthood described things that felt anything but “free.” They described lack of sleep and barely having time to eat; epic crying sessions and every single shirt covered in spit-up.
Every person I knew who consciously chose not to have kids cited “lack of freedom” as their reason why. They wanted to pick up and travel at a moment’s notice. They wanted to pursue career ambitions. They wanted to spend money on decor, not daycare.
They knew that having children, much as they supported others doing so if that called to them, would scale those things back.
So how would I reconcile having a child with my deepest CDFs? How would I create “freedom” in that experience?
Honey, It’s Time to Walk That Talk
Before I was pregnant and when I was still contemplating children, the answer to that question was this: the idea of never having a child felt completely wrong.
While having a child might mean releasing some freedom, not having one felt like straight-jacketing my future to something that wasn’t really, truly “me.” That certainly didn’t feel like “freedom.”
Furthermore, having a child resonated with most of my other CDFs: sacred connection, sensuous delight, powerful.
So, step one: I felt grounded in knowing that of the two options, kid or no kid, I did want to have a child and start a family.
Then, as pregnancy slowly began to limit my options–drastically reduced caffeine, no more triathlon training, my entire wardrobe relegated to the back of my closet as my stomach expanded ever-bigger–I kept returning to this question of how I would integrate “freedom” into my life. Being pregnant, I was already feeling “less than free.”
On Facebook, in grocery stores, at restaurants, people followed their congratulations with a litany of all the things I’d “never” be able to do, again. I’d never sleep well, again. I’d never be able to go out for an evening without hiring a babysitter, again. I’d never get my body back. I’d never know ease.
They made having children sound like nothing but chaos and worry.
And then the baby arrived. In the first few weeks, I really never expected that I would feel a sense of “freedom,” anyway. Most of the time, I felt blissed out, excited to hold her, craving the smell of her and the feeling of her small body in my arms.
After about a month, it began to creep in: a longing for long afternoons spent writing, a leisurely evening at a restaurant, eight hours straight of sleep.
Following the longing, the flashes of resentment. Another bottle? Another diaper change? She’s up, already? But she just went down for a nap!
Focus on the Freedom
You might have found yourself in this sort of situation, before: you tell yourself, “Here’s how I want to live. I’m going to [be more patient; be more compassionate; focus on gratitude; etc.].”
Then a frustrating day happens, or a series of them. You’re feeling pushed to your absolute limits. You’re exhausted with the very process. You’re asking yourself, “When is this going to get easier?” and sensing that the answer to this question is, “It won’t. This is what it is.”
In those spaces, it feels as if there really are no options. You want to reach for something different, but everything that seems to be available is something really, really challenging.
That’s the point I hit, when my focus became noticing the freedom inherent in what I already had.
In my pre-baby days, I could “create freedom.” I could look at my multitude of options, and choose the one that felt most aligned with my CDF of freedom.
Having a baby, I find, requires a slightly different strategy. I have lots of options, sure, but most of them are not really compatible with where my daughter is at, right now. Ditching diaper duty to dine at a Zagat-rated restaurant, for instance, is a wholly incompatible choice with the love that I have for my daughter and my commitment to demonstrate that love through giving her truly impeccable care.
But I can focus on freedom, to amplify the freedom that already exists.
In other words, it’s all there. Instead of waiting for “freedom to happen to me” so that I could appreciate it, or instead of trying to “create” freedom out of thin air, there’s this twist: freedom is here, it’s just about whether or not I’ll notice it.
For example: Every time I do feel well-rested (and there are days where that happens), I can celebrate that. I can notice how freeing it is on that particular day to feel “well-rested” in my bones, as opposed to going to the future and wondering how I can jerry-rig the situation to see if I can make that kind of night happen, a second time.
In other words: when life is tough, and you’re going, “Whatever it is that I want to cultivate just isn’t something I can orchestrate, right now,” chances are good that if you get creative, you’ll find some little sliver of what you desire that’s already here.
Once you discover that sliver of delicious desire, you focus on it. By focusing on it, you amplify the good feelings associated with it.
Then you feel more of what you desire to feel.
The Most Powerful Choice
Really, this is the most powerful choice that we can make. It’s more powerful to look at what’s already showing up and make something beautiful out of those circumstances, than it is to tell ourselves the old story of happiness arising when all of the planets align.
The reason this is such a powerful choice isn’t just that we get to live beautifully, which is your birthright. The reason it’s powerful is because the locus of your power is centered solely within yourself when you make that kind of a choice, not something external.
In The End
I dislike “happily ever after” stories told by self-help types (and I’m an admitted self-help type). This is not a “happily ever after.” This is a day-to-day-to-day. Sometimes, it’s really hard.
But other times? Many times? More and more and more often? It’s getting easier. When you look for what you want to find, you often find it.
Stop hoping that what you desire is looking for you. Get crackin’ on looking around and opening your eyes a little wider. You might be stunned into ecstasy by what you discover.
People: I had a baby. A baby!
I’m pretty excited about her. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows this, because since she was born, it’s been baby-baby-baby. And color me biased, but: I think she’s reallllllly freaking cute.
as the baby pictures began to accumulate on my feed, typically accompanied by me gushing about this kid’s overall downright cuteness and my penchant for adding the hashtag #WhatACutiePatootie, I noticed something started to happen:
I started to feel apologetic for my joy.
Apologizing For Your Joy
When you feel apologetic for your joy, you start to:
- Shrink from letting your joy be on full display (cue the cool girls in middle school and high school who rolled their eyes and said, “Oh my god–like, calm down!” when I was ecstatically excited).
- Feel guilty for your privilege (thinking of all the people who don’t have what you have, who deserve it just as much as you).
- Worry that maybe you’re “too much” for other people (will people think that I’m weird because I keep posting all of these pictures of my kid; people will get tired of all of these kid pictures and not like me anymore).
- Downplay your joy, for fear that the “other shoe will drop” and that something about loving your life will mean that life will even the score–this is a fear of letting life get really, really good.
This is all rooted in caring what other people think.
The Joy Cannot Be Contained
I was marveling at my daughter’s feet, and I took a picture. They are so exquisitely tiny, and soft, and the little bones that make up her toes are so slender and elegant. Her heels kick out, in constant motion whenever she is awake; her toes curl under if I give them a gentle tug.
I marvel at her motion: she is alive, she is breathing, she is an actual human being! A human being with her own soul, her own life’s path, her own way of looking at the world that will be different from mine, yet influenced on some level by my point of view!
It was precisely this kind of thinking that reminded me: if her point of view on the world might in any way be influenced by my own, then I was very clear that I wanted her to have a model of fully embracing her joy.
That’s when I posted this photo and its accompanying note:
Perusing my feed a few days later, I saw this picture, posted by Kate Northrup:
That’s when I realized: this is something that we humans just do, this apologizing for joy. Our work is to catch ourselves and remember that it’s our birthright to live this human experience in joy. That’s why we are here.
The Courage to Embrace Your Joy
It’s an act of courage to fully embrace your joy. We live in a world that does contain hard things; it does contain suffering. There are people who don’t have the resources that they need, whether material or emotional. There are people who have all the access one could imagine, and they live in a personal hell of hating themselves.
It’s important to understand that when you fully embrace your joy, you’re making a choice to walk into divine consciousness, a sort of communion with the Universe and every other being who walks the planet.
It’s vulnerable and thus an act of courage.
Despite the naysayers, despite the fear that you could lose it all, despite the fact that we live in a world where it is true that people suffer–choosing to fully and ecstatically embrace your joy is actually what amplifies you, gives you energy and reserves to create something that ripples out to others.
That’s what’s so divine about this choice: when you fill your own cup with joy, more becomes available for others.
A few years ago, when I was a professor teaching full-time at the college level, I was handed a last-minute class after a professor was going to be out sick for the first month of the semester.
Predictably, thinking of me as more of a “sub” than a permanent fixture, the students were pretty awful. They rebelled against even the most basic of classroom structures, things that I never had issues with in my regularly scheduled classes–things like attendance. They questioned me on every paper topic, every grade. Some of them belligerently debated with me during class discussions, trying to find little ways to make me look stupid in front of the class.
By mid-term, the other professor wasn’t coming back, which meant that I was now the instructor of record for the class for the remaining months of the semester, and I was emotionally wasted and would cry the night before I had to go in to teach because these students–man, they were truly that bad. At the time, I badly needed the money and that was the only reason I had accepted the classes, but these students were so awful that I was close to bailing and suffering the consequences.
And then I did something–something that would forever alter how I would approach hard things in life and how I would practice courageous living.
Choosing the Gift
This was the choice I made: I asked myself what gift I might possibly be able to get out of teaching this class.
I was clear that the money was not the motivating factor; I was at the point where I’d rather have credit card debt than go in another day.
Then it occurred to me: I very much wanted to be a mother, and I knew that if I ever became a mom, there were going to be moments when my own kid was going to really, really challenge me.
These students, with their rudeness and manipulation, were offering me an excellent opportunity to practice unconditional love–that is, if I was willing to do the work of shifting my mindset and seeing it that way.
So, I tried it out. The next time a student was rude, I took a deep breath, and responded kindly (but firmly, and with healthy boundaries) from a place of what I believed to be unconditional love. I chose not to judge. I chose not to see the student as a “bad” person.
Not For Pollyanna
Prior to this experience, I had always considered such approaches to be the flighty, out of touch with reality responses of those “Pollyanna types.”
I was pretty convinced that people who chose to do this were Faker McFakersons who were trying to force themselves to believe something that they didn’t really believe.
To my amazement, however, something shifted within me when I made a conscious choice to look for what I sincerely wanted as a gift, in a situation that was hard.
It was one of those times where I realized just how powerful it was to consciously choose how I wanted to walk the world–all of the time spent learning and practicing the tools of courageous living were really paying off.
Now I am a momma. My daughter is a pretty typical newborn, which is to say: she cries when she wants something or is hungry or uncomfortable, and much of my day-to-day is based on how well her gastrointestinal system is functioning. If she is gassy or constipated, the work of attending to her is constant (and if not, blissfully, she alternates between feeding and sleeping and makes those cute little contended newborn grunts and coos).
There was a day, recently, that was epically awful. Hours upon hours of intermittent crying; I had consulted the doctor, who had determined what was up and that it was not serious, and I had administered a doctor-approved treatment and it was literally just a matter of waiting for that treatment to take effect.
Meaning: there was no quick fix, and she was feeling all of it, moment-to-moment, moment-to-moment.
Every time she started to cry again, I felt a wave of anxiety go through my body. “No, please, no,” I thought. After several hours, I felt I couldn’t stand to hear her cry, one more time (and I also felt guilty about that).
So I stopped, and I asked myself what I could do.
The one thing that I felt I could do was this: be with her through this. Use this as a space where she might be in discomfort, but she was not going to be alone in her discomfort.
In the moment that I aligned with that, a fierceness for my child arose: Momma was here, all the way.
Furthermore, I decided, I was not going to go into a mentality of thinking that my daughter should be feeling any differently than she was feeling. I was not going to stay in the place of, “Why isn’t she calming down, yet?” or “I wish she’d stop crying.”
I decided that I would practice total acceptance of her feelings, without stepping even a pinky toe into the land of thinking her feelings needed to be different than they were (all so that life would be more convenient for me).
In other words, acceptance.
That was a long, long, long day. When my husband got home from work, I handed the baby off to him for comfort and went up to my office and decompressed by consciously crying it out for ten minutes.
Then I went back downstairs and together, we worked as a team to help her through.
That sounds really deep and meaningful and Zen, as if I’ve got it all figured out and just blissfully practice presence all day, so I feel the need to add the qualifier that I am being taught this by life; I am deeply in the experience of it. I am hardly a master. I have days where life feels nothing like presence and I want to completely lose my shit, which for me would look like getting very irritable, depressed, or resentful towards everyone around me and very victim-ey in my thinking (“Life will always be this way; I’m trapped.”)
What I’m saying is that presence itself is an ongoing, moment-to-moment practice, not something that any of us can tick off of the to-do list as “figured out.”
It’s practicing presence to the concept of self-care. What do I need to do, to be available for my child? Sometimes I fail at this and look at the clock and realize that I skipped lunch and now I’m grumpy and flagging and impatient; time for some presence. Sometimes she goes down for a nap and I get busy trying to take care of the next thing; presence and self-care would call for ten slow, deep breaths.
It’s presence to her needs. Our daughter seems to be one of those babies who does really, really well in a quiet house with simple interaction–and she really, really hates a lot of stimulation. Yet of course, everyone wants to see the new baby, hold the new baby, wake the baby from a nap so that they can see her in action.
I learned the hard way that saying “yes” to the needs of others means that she’ll be grumpy and unable to sleep for hours afterwards–and I’ll be the one dealing with the aftermath of that. Presence means doing the hard work to say “no” to scenarios where there will be a lot of stimulation, but that’s what presence requires: prioritizing her needs over the needs of others.
That’s why I say that this is about a personal practice of presence:
- Am I willing to be with my child, no matter what she feels, without going into a mentality that she “should” feel differently?
- Am I willing to drop the Egoic “mother as martyr” image and make sure that I take the time to check in with myself and see what I need–water, nourishment, rest, help?
- Am I willing to step into doing what I sincerely think is best for her, even if it disappoints others, and risk judgement?
I often say that courage is not something you have; it’s something you choose to practice.
I believe that it’s courageous to be in the middle of something epically hard and decide to take just ten long, deep breaths. That might seem too simple to be a legitimately courageous choice, but the simplicity shouldn’t mask the courage.
Any time we choose to slow down, to choose the simple solution over the flashy one, and to go deeply into what love requires, we are practicing courage.
Deep breaths, nourishment, dropping the need to be “all of it” for someone else, releasing attachment to someone else’s feelings–all of these are practices in courage.
They aren’t as flashy as doing some big, epic thing that gets a lot of attention, but they make all the difference in the world in a real, meaningful way in your day-to-day.