Mark Upon the Infinite: Motherhood, Vulnerability, and the Yogic Path

During these last two years of becoming mother, questions of identity have swirled. This posting of The Work of the Light (my writings on this great yoga practice called life) is an exploration of self, Self, fear, and love.

Learning how to love is the goal and the purpose of spiritual life -- not learning how to develop psychic powers, not learning how to bow, chant, do yoga, or even meditate, but learning to love. Love is the truth. Love is the light.

~ Lama Surya Das

…Bearing and nurturing,

Creating but not owning,

Giving without demanding,

Controlling without authority,

This is love.

~ Lao Tzu, The Tao-Te Ching


Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

~  Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, “On Children”

I love my son so much, it hurts. A moment ago he was asleep on my chest, 22 warm pounds, his breathing rhythmic and soft. I’d just carried him from the car. We’d left for our morning workouts—mine on weight training machines, his navigating toys and other tots. As we drove the mile to the gym, I watched him fall asleep. I made the loop back toward our home. We’ll go later, I told myself. 

I love him so much, I hurt. Lying there a moment a go, I once again felt myself breaking with love; like a fault line in the center of my chest could quake so intensely with love it would crumble my whole being. It’s an ache that contains the vulnerability of motherhood, the knowledge that I can’t truly protect him, the fear, and tsunami-like longing for his wellbeing. It threatens to subsume me.  Sometimes, I’m so overtaken that I lose sense of where I end, and he begins. This is what happens when these human sheaths try to embody the greatness called Love. It continually breaks us, so that we can become better people each time we rebuild.

I told my mom about the feeling. She said she knows it, too. And it’s like you want to absorb him. You want him to be an independent being, but you also want to meld with him. Yes, exactly, I said, exactly. Well, I know it too, she replied.

My baby boy is one year old. He has completed his first revolution around the sun. We celebrated with a cupcake, and a candle, and a happy birthday balloon with sunflowers. I told the woman who filled the balloon that it felt like my birthday, too. She laughed and nodded. She understood, she said. Mine are all grown, but I remember.

In my past life — before becoming Mommy — I was a yoga teacher. One of the practice’s central tenets is that we human beings are something greater than these physical sheaths. Though we may use the body in the interest of cultivating connection to our Higher Selves, we are not the body, nor the mind that inhabits its neural network. Our work is to release attachment from the identity the mind-body trapping represents. Beyond the Julia who has a postal address, and various likes and dislikes, there exists a Source of compassionate awareness. This Source knows me, and loves me, regardless of what I do. I have known Her, sat with Her, felt held by Her. 

And though the body — and the identity it contains — is our vehicle to do this work of the Spirit, we must work to release our attachment to it. Attaching to something as temporal as the body brings suffering. But, using the body healthfully and mindfully in the interest of connecting to our true Self brings joyfulness. And though I’ve chanted and moved and breathed and taught this truth, motherhood slams me against it. 

Identity. I am a woman called mother. I am a woman who loves a being called my son. But if I am not this body, if I am not this mind…How do I sync the humanness, the loving ache that quakes through me, with this truth of the Spirit? 

This question seems perennial — surely mothers across time have wrestled with it. For now, let’s put it aside. Since becoming pregnant, I’ve been harassed by another, more immediate, more earthly question.

Since becoming mother, a part of me desperately reaches for the answer to the question: Who am I? It’s jarring, because I didn’t realize how much it mattered. I thought I’d done the work to mitigate my attachments, but in these last months, I’ve found myself clawing for a tangible sense of myself. Once you think you’ve learned something, life inevitably offers more challenging ways to put the lesson into practice.

One night, late in pregnancy, I was on my way to meet a friend. We’d planned to meet at a bar, one I’d frequented in my pre-pregnancy life. One at which I’d dined and drank and flirted and dated, and returned to after numerous trips to exotic places. This bar had known adventurer Julia, red-lipsticked Julia. That night, I remember this abrasive thought: who am I? I felt assaulted by it. Who am I?

I’d never felt that question so fully. I’d always had some answer; I’d always been something. Daughter. Journalist. Academic. Future UN Ambassador. Globe Wandering Sexually Liberated Yoga Teacher. Psychologist. Yoga Studio Owner. Therapist. Seeker of Non-Attachment. That night, I was none of those things. Previous identities didn’t fit. And also, I wasn’t yet mother. 

I had no idea how much all of those titles meant to me until I was stripped of them. In motherhood, I am new. None of those old clothes fit.

Now, a year in, I still reach for an answer. I know that whoever this “I” is has felt more sad, more afraid, more achingly broken; by equal toll, I have known Joy. I have changed so many diapers, have nursed through painful infections, have sobbed and rocked and cradled and held and gazed. I have felt once toned flesh hang heavy on tired bones. I have fallen more deeply in love, daily. I have seen tired eyes, stained red, stare back at me. Hair undone; Nails un-filed; Eyebrows un-shaped; Big blue veins like rivers across my chest; Pale, fleshy legs and a thickened waist; Whose body is this, I have asked, I have pleaded. What stranger has locked me inside?

Action. If we are what we repeatedly do, as philosophers have surmised, then who the hell am I? I do diapers. I do laundry. I clean baby bottles, hundreds of them every single day. I do not fit into my old clothes. I barely have energy to read a grown up book. I do silly dances, and speak in the funny Klingon dialect my baby boy babbles. I live somewhere in between terrible exhaustion, and awesome joy. Pregnancy and motherhood have mutated every single familiar “I am.”

I am haunted by these ghosts of my former selves and yet I would never return to a time before becoming mother. I long for my pre-baby life, AND I revel in every moment with my son. I live between these two worlds.

I have had long days to chew on these questions. Long hours spent with baby tucked into the curl of my body, to ponder, and lament, and realize. 

I realize that my identity quandary is a quest for something concrete, some definition, because motherhood is awash with uncertainty. Motherhood is vulnerability embodied. I am raw and exposed. Carrying my son is like wearing all my most precious organs on the outside of my bones. I understand that I’ve been grasping for the structure of identity because I’m desperate for some kind of armor to protect us both.

I brought this babe into life knowing it’ll end for him. And as I sit with this great big fear — that I might outlive him — I realize my only recourse is to let the sadness in, to feel it all. Not to dwell, or to let the imagination’s darkest tendencies seize me, but to welcome the feelings when they come so that they can move through me. The whole Julia can only exist when I don’t parcel off parts of myself. 

I realize that this new mommy me is a more complete me. I am a woman unwilling to shy away from parts of myself because I know that my children will benefit from the experience of being held by a whole being, unafraid of feeling this funny, wonderful, often really sad thing called life. A mommy willing to feel is a mommy able to be love.

The other side of this uncertainty — the lighter side that rests near every shadow — is the gift of softness. I am less certain of who I am, and what I’m consequently supposed to do. The Julia who thought she knew had more definition, but also more rigidity.  Today, I know that I don’t know, and I feel more present, more receptive, more able to go with the flow (a state my pre-mommy self aspired to)Non attachment is a daily practice by virtue of circumstance.

And I think this is the answer to that perennial question: How do I sync the my humanness with this work of the Spirit? How do I practice non-attachment in the face of my babe? 

And the answer is: I practice. I remind myself that, as Kahlil Gibran wrote, my son has come through me, but not from me I am the bow from which he, a living arrow, is sent forth. And when the very human part of me reaches for him, grasps for his safety, I return to the breath, to those truths I taught and moved and breathed and chanted. Neither my son, nor myself, are ultimately this body, nor this mind. We are both seekers of the Spirit, whose Soul purpose is to learn to live with compassion, and awareness. In this life, we’ll both do our best.