The most beautiful thing in the sterile white classrooms where I teach are the students themselves, full of vibrancy and noise and mess, enthusiastic in both their excitement and confusion, bringing color into the room in the same way that a flung open window brings in light and sound and gently wafting breezes to tease and taunt with a glimpse of new possibilities. This is what I have missed during the last year of online teaching. The conversation. The connection. The way we get sidetracked into topics that are not on the lesson plan but end up being more interesting and more applicable than we could have imagined. Teaching online is just…not the same. It is too quiet, too planned, too formulaic. There is none of the wandering that happens organically in a traditional classroom. No opportunity for exploration.
I remember walking down a long corridor at the college where I was a freshman, what seems like ages ago now, young and insecure, but intrigued by the possibilities in those rooms full of strangers. At that moment I felt lost. Unsure of myself. And without a doubt seeking something new, something interesting—something that I didn’t even know I was searching for. I was nineteen, half my life ago now, and I was overcome by the sense that I needed to be useful. To do something important. To major in something marketable and definable and profitable. To matter.
And I found what matters to me, but not in the way my nineteen-year-old brain ever could have anticipated.
I have been thinking a lot lately about getting lost. Not in a real sense—with cell phones and maps and 24/7 connection actually getting lost is a thing of the past, I think. But the idea of wandering. Of exploring. Of meditation. The art of recognizing the small things that might just be larger than we think. This is why I love to travel. The opportunity to just walk through a new city and feel the atmosphere, to meander down new streets, see new sights, immerse yourself in the unfamiliar and unexpected. There is this perception that we always have to have a destination—but what I have discovered about myself is that I love the process of getting lost, of finding the unknown and undreamed of.
In a sense my whole adult life has been a wandering. An experiment in the unexpected. Marriage. Motherhood. Education. Nothing seemed to come in the order I had planned. Instead I got married early. We had four children so close in age that they are now stumbling towards adulthood in each other’s shadows. I took one class a semester to keep my toe in education while I became a stay-at-home mom. Now motherhood—motherhood is a wandering if I have ever seen it, with every day presenting new and sometimes unusual challenges.
I changed my major. And changed it again. And changed it again until I realized that I wanted not only to be useful, but to have an impact in a very specific way. I wanted to connect, and to communicate with others. I wanted to be able to plant roots, to nourish them, and to watch them grow. Embracing motherhood freed me to pursue what I truly wanted—the ability to create my own experiences, and to explore my own paths. To find myself in the journey. I learned I love long walks on rainy days and sunny days at the pool when my children were learning to swim. I love gardening, but I hate weeding. I found that there is nothing better than snuggling into a couch with four little people pressed into your sides as you read a story and they fall gently to sleep and you carry them to bed, their bodies heavy and limp. I learned who I wanted to be and what I needed. I discovered what it means to be me.
At the same time, I felt the weight of all the social commentary that tells women that motherhood is secondary to having careers, that true value can only be found in selling ourselves through work and commodification. I felt the disapproval of a culture that devalues the feminine qualities essential to nurturing not only others but ourselves. That says we need to be busy all the time, and that finds no value in stillness.
So this is what I have come to know over the last twenty years as I have watched my children grow and mature and begin to take their own steps towards independence.
We are empowered by the feminine. The nurturing forces of the maternal allow us to express our creativity, to create honest and authentic relationships, and to place importance on the things in life that have no material value, but instead serve to nourish our minds and our souls. It creates connection. Even science is discovering the importance of this kind of attachment. Recent studies have found that attachment can help boost immunity to disease, increase overall health, and enhance mental clarity—it can help delay or prevent aging and memory loss. Within communities that nurture strong connections to one another, people live longer, fuller, healthier lives. This is the power of the maternal—the ability to create, to connect, to encompass gifts that are not recognized in a world that places importance only on what can be sold or what can be profited from.
I discovered that motherhood is a very specific type of nurturing, but one that changes—I am not the same mother to my almost adult children that I was when they were younger, and the way that they need my attention has changed. Instead of taking care of their physical needs, wiping their tears, bandaging their scraped knees, all types of mothering that are very concrete and easily identifiable, my children need me in different ways. They need time, attention, and the ability to explore. The time they need is not an easy, sit together and play type of time, but something more dynamic, more vulnerable. They need a listening ear. A hot meal at whatever time of day they show up at home after a long day. Someone to find all the lost things. And, sometimes, they still need someone to bandage their scraped knees. They need nurturing, but also freedom—a balance that is hard to create and harder to maintain. They need love.
I never thought I would become a teacher. In fact, when I was younger I actively pushed back against those who suggested that I should consider it as a career path. Until I walked into my first classroom as a graduate instructor while finishing my masters degree and fell in love. Because suddenly I could see that what I enjoyed most about being a mom was also present in the classroom. Teaching is, for me, a good conversation. A winding, wandering path. A nurturing environment. It did not detract from, but added to my exploration of myself.
I am a mother. I am a teacher. I am a writer, and a creator. And far from being competing identities, these things feel synergistic, like parts of a larger whole.
I am a nurturer.
In talking to a friend, she told me that she became an active feminist, not when her daughter was born, but after the birth of her son. She had no doubts about her ability to help her daughter be a strong woman. But she was concerned about the way the world denies men the ability to be loving, caring individuals, about how society shapes boys to disregard the women in their lives as merely decorative placeholders that are of lesser value. She was afraid of the discrimination against women that does more than just paint them as secondary, but that devalues all that is feminine or maternal, even loving and respectful relationships. But what can we do about the way our culture portrays the feminine?
I think a lot of change can be made through radical empathy. A profound shift in the way we value women and mothers and the feminine influences that nurture each of us from our first moments.
In many stories there is a myth of the wise old woman, a guiding figure that leads a hero or heroine towards their true path, someone that knows all the answers. I feel like this literary trope oversimplifies. Because what if we don’t know all the answers? Maybe wisdom lies in the awareness of what it is we do not know. In the questioning. In the wandering. In the discovery. In the journey instead of the destination.
We’ve been told that what we are looking for are answers, that we need to have a definite, concrete knowledge of something in order to enter the conversation, that we must spend our time and our education to become experts at one thing or another. But how would it change our view of the world if instead of looking for the answers we looked for questions? If we asked ourselves what truly benefits us and those around us? If we inquire into what it is we are searching for, really? If we search for the people, the spaces, and the places that nourish our souls?
Valuing empathy and caregiving is a radical act that allows us to lean in to the qualities that make us uniquely human—the things that make us whole. It can be one way to find the people we are singularly situated to serve, and to influence. It can help us to reject the forces that tell us we cannot make a difference, that our influence doesn’t count, that marketability is the only thing that can change the world we live in. As we become more aware of the maternal, nourishing influences in our lives we become comfortable with our own gifts, and the places where we can have an impact—we recognize the divine that nurtures us and leads us and sustains us.
By collectively claiming and embracing our identities, not only as men and women, but as humans, we can change the negative cultural stereotypes associated with the feminine, embracing the maternal forces that shape a kinder, more sustainable society. We move the goalpost from recognizing social interactions as a business transaction to valuing human connection and authentic relationships. We place value on empathy and compassion over acquisition and entitlement. We move past the superficiality of transactional relationships into fundamental, maternal, caring connections.
We planted tomatoes this last weekend. The spring has been warm, the days almost unnaturally balmy, and despite the fact that I know it is too early to plant, we gave in to the hope of long, warm days and dug into the dark loamy soil, fragrant with the scent of springtime and the promise of summer sun, and nestled the tiny tender plants into their places in the garden bed. We watered and fertilized. We anticipated. We hoped.
And then it froze. A late-spring snowstorm that blackened leaves and shriveled stems. It felt discouraging.
But I know the sun will return. The soil will warm up, the spring rains will come, and frost will stop nipping the edges of the plants we hope to grow.
And for now, that is enough.
We will plant new plants.
We will care for the small, the unprotected, the tiny things and people in need of nourishment to thrive.
We will find grace and love and unexpected possibilities.
We will wander new paths, and meet new people. We will build relationships and connections.
And in the fall I will enter a new classroom, filled with the unexpected and the unknown, ready to get lost again.