Tag Archives: empty nest

When Doing Our Best Feels Like Failure…

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For those of you who feel like your best falls short sometimes…here’s some permission to GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!  (special permission for mothers of college bound seniors, in the throes of athletic recruitment!)

“Mom.  I’ve decided that I want to play baseball in college.  It’s my dream.”

This came out of my rising senior son’s mouth, early this summer, after his first few games with his new Legion baseball team.  This was not the plan.

I am a planner ahead-er.  Especially when it comes to my children.  So throughout my son’s high school career, I’ve gently teased out ideas of what college might look like for him.  What his dream would be.  The long and short of it was this:  A big school with great sports teams, near a city, with a lot of diversity and opportunity, and a strong Business School.  We knew he wasn’t D1 baseball material, and so playing ball at a large university wasn’t really on the map, even though I know how much he’s loved the game, all the way back to T-ball, buck teeth, and a scrappy little mop of blonde hair.

It was time for him to spread his wings and see what else there was out there to love.  Plus, he’s been raised in a small mountain community in NW Montana, unlike the Chicago of my youth, and the New York city of his father’s.  We were excited for him to start playing the field of life, not just the field of and around the baseball diamond.

“Just think—you’ll have a regular spring, for once.  You’ll have extra time to be able to expand academically into new terrain, and enjoy what college life has to offer.”  He seemed copacetic.  Relieved almost.  And frankly, it was a relief for me too– I’ve logged a lot of hours on those baseball bleachers, and he’s logged a lot of hours on that diamond and in those dug-outs.  It would be a good step for us all.  Because how could I pass up being in those bleachers as much as possible, even if it meant a long road trip.  Heck, in Montana, we’re used to those—all for the love of ball.  I was privately happy to put it in the rearview mirror.13325635_10153431308556266_4887280178150671123_n

And then that day in June…  “Mom, I love this sport.  I love the kids who play this sport.  I’m good at it.  I want to play in college.  I don’t care if I don’t have as much of a social life.  My team will be my social life.  I don’t care if it’s not some big university near a city.  I’ll play D3.  I just want to play baseball.”  Out of the mouths of not-so-babes.

I’m a mother.  Far be it from me to stand in the way of my child’s dreams.  And what he said was all true.  He’s a talented leftie pitcher, and a great first-baseman, and a spirited team member.  He never ever complains about any of it.  He takes it as the Hero’s Journey that baseball is:  The call to leave home, go out in the world, and come back, more the wise, despite some scrapes and losses along the way.  As of this June, he just wants “to play baseball.”  I remembered a seventeen-year old girl who just wanted “to be an artist.”  So I Googled D3 baseball colleges:  Small.  Liberal Arts.  No Business major.  Mostly rural.  And very…very expensive.  Plus, they don’t offer athletic scholarships.  Huh.

I quickly learned that on top of it all, the kids who get recruited for D3 sports, have been going to recruitment camps for years.  They’re on the coaches’ radars.  They know all about scholarships and are in touch with Financial Aid departments.  They have their lists in place and have toured campuses.  They’ve met with Admissions people.  Just when, I’m not sure.  Surely not in the summer.  They’re the Boys of Summer– they’re playing baseball every second of every day—eighty-eight games!  And if they play other sports, not then either.  AND, the cherry on top of the top:  it all has to be done Early Decision or Early Action…by…drum roll:  November 1st!  That’s in a matter of months!  And the cherry atop the cherry on top:  my son is the quarterback of the football team.  Just when are we supposed to visit campuses?  If he misses a practice, he misses the Friday game.  How does one fly from Montana to Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, and Ohio, and Minnesota, and Oregon, have a proper visit during the school week, and make everybody happy?  Never mind pay for it all?

We were late to the party.  Very late.

This is not my style.  Usually…I’m throwing the dang party.  How could this have happened?  How could I not have at least seen the potential of this coming our way and had a back-up plan in place?  How could I make my son proud, and make it through this without guilt, shame, the feeling of less-than, the feeling of failing him?  I hadn’t been able to save the marriage from ending, or keep his father from moving thousands of miles away, or his friends from moving, or his sister from taking an internship far from home this summer.  I hadn’t been able to provide a house full of action and fun like it used to be.  In fact, in the last five years, I’ve been working all the time.  Leaving him home alone.  Leaving him to cook his meals and fend for himself– the opposite of what I would ever have opted for as the mother to my son.  I was not going to fail him this time.  No way.

And so it began.  The baptism-by-fire SAT sign up and tutoring, the college essay boot camp, the virtual college advisor meetings, the recruitment videos and the camps in Long Island and Oregon, the Common Application.  I’ll save you the stress of it all, and me the blood-pressure spike, but suffice it to say that on top of my full-time job leading writing retreats in Montana, and a book deadline for a novel I’ve been working on for a few years, as a single mother, I was now scrambling to put together a schedule that would be do-able.  For all of us.  Not perfect.  But possible.  And all before November 1st.  Deep breath. 13450882_10153462757811266_6947302589785351012_n

But the breathing is shallow at best.

I am smack dab in the throes of it right now.  And here’s what I’ve learned:  You can’t be perfect.  Even with the best of intentions, as a mother…you’re just going to fall short sometimes.  Even with your heart and soul and mind as sharp and on it as possible, there are times as a mother of a college-bound child when you are going to look around and say, How did I get here?  I didn’t mean for this to happen.  I was trying so hard.  I was doing my best.  And my best…well, it just isn’t good enough.  And you’ll look around at the other mothers, and somehow, they are at the party that you didn’t even know existed.  They are seasoned party-goers, with gracious hostess gifts, and the perfect, in this case, little red-white-and-blue jersey, and ball cap, with the proverbial stadium seat sporting their son’s soon-to-be alma mater’s mascot.

And you’ll feel small, or wrong, or just plain bad.  And you’ll find yourself crying in bed in the early hours, or lying in the dark with heart palpitations, and the feeling of true hopelessness, desperation even.  You were the one that dropped him off on his first day at Montessori with a backpack full of black-eyed Susans for his teacher, with a loving note.  You were the one who lay in bed with him every night reading him Ferdinand, and Mike Mulligan, and Dr. Seuss, who sang him Lullaby, and played This Little Piggy, and taught him how to make homemade ice cream.  You were the one who drove over mountain passes for any number of baseball and football games—and that one time when he missed the bus, and you drove six hours to drop him off at camp, and turned around and drove six hours back.  You were that mother, yes you were.  You promised him you’d give him the very best of you.  And here you are failing him in his, to date, biggest opportunity, his biggest dream.  Because…what if he doesn’t get that scholarship money, and what if you can’t swing it to get him to more than three of those schools so he doesn’t even know where he wants to apply early, and what if what if what if…well, what if his “dream” doesn’t come true?

I know the answer.  He’ll be okay.  We will all be okay.  First world problems.  But still…this is one of the last things we can do for our kids—shepherd them into their next chapter, and the first one far from home.  We’ll see what happens in November.  We’ll see if he’ll get that golden ticket, and he’ll open that letter and smile, and nod, and fold into my arms in happiness and relief.  We’ll see if we get that moment of, “We did this.  This dream is going to come true!”  But even if we don’t, I have to believe that regrets are never really teaching tools.  We will always fall short somehow.  We’re mothers.  There is no A+.  There is only the very best we can do.  Even if we are late to the party.  Especially…if we are late to the party.  Because here’s the bottom line:  There is no party.  It’s really, in the end, just the Hero’s Journey, after all.

If you would like to take a break in 2017 and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call! Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

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(previously published in Grown and Flown)

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Summer Mother

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I wrote this 20 years ago one summer evening, after a day of hiking in the mountains of Montana with my brand new baby. It’s all about letting go– something I am learning all over again as she enters her senior year in college and my son, his junior year in high school.  Deep breaths to all mothers out there who are facing empty nests…

It is summer in Montana and it is past our collective bedtime, but we are driving into a sky glowing burnt orange, steel green mountains not yet silhouettes. The days are full here, too full, maybe. There is a three month panic to be scantily clothed and to wave the limbs around in hot air, in water, on a sweaty horse’s back. Suddenly there is so much sun after so much snow and grey matte sky and it’s a drug we agree to take in overdose. I don’t wear sunblock. Neither does my husband. We slather our baby in it, but let the undersides of our arms rest on the hot black paint of the car door while the tops– all the way to our fingers– in-between our fingers, bake in high-noon sun; then on our foreheads and backs at the lake in sparkling water, on hot rose rocks, on alpine trails, in meadows of lupine, Indian paintbrush, yarrow, huckleberries. With red and purple-stained skin pulsing sweet dried sweat over the throb of cooling highway, we cover our tracks back, turning off fourteen dead, fifty injured in a bombing today in an Israeli market; hold hands, try to find the moon.

Look. A star, I say, letting go of his hand, pointing. Yeah, he says. Two of them. That one’s bright. I wonder if it’s a planet. Wondering, I reach back for my baby’s hand without looking, craving a little loose bundle of fingers. There is a soft sigh from the back seat and I get my offering. Everything to her is this kind of sky. A chirping squirrel is still as full of wonder for her as the stars popping out over the blue Jewel Basin one way, the pale orange still hanging over the Canadian Rockies, the other. I close my eyes a moment; a small prayer in honor of squirrels. I want wonder.rbk-little-gitl-0513-1-mdn

There is heartbreak in all this. I fight to be there, under the gaining stars, not to consider the end of this day’s light a misfortune. It doesn’t have to be a death. It doesn’t have to make me think about tomorrow. I flirt with the story of the market bombing– picture a mother handling tomatoes, her son slipping an orange into his pants– fight the image of their bleeding bodies lying splayed and still in the dirt, covered in blown-up tomato pulp. No. I hold my baby’s hand tighter and weave a few of her fingers into mine. They’re sticky with huckleberry juice. I feel the stinging of sunburn on my back, minus an X. I mouth, I am here…I am here. The wonder does not have to be scary. She’s not scared. She is singing. I peek back to see what she is doing with this closing darkness. She is fingering the window. Counting stars. Feeling glass. Drawing pictures with her saliva. She is where I want to be.

I look at my husband’s face. It is the color of the Whitefish range: the last coal. He likes the window down halfway. He likes total silence. He is driving. He is where I want to be. Earlier, in the hardware store parking lot, I wait in the car with my daughter asleep in her car-seat, checking to see that the seatbelt is not cutting off her breathing. How can she breathe slumped over like that, her head to her belly? But she does– I can see her shoulders rising and falling. In-between checks, I stare at puddle mirages in the hot pavement, at women in passenger seats on the diagonal, all lined up; babies sleeping behind them. They are checking too, staring at mirages. One by one they click into ready position, their husbands walking proud and purposeful with a new hammer, a bag of fertilizer, dandelion killer. I am waiting for bear mace– red pepper spray, as if that would do anything, a grizzly bear bounding at us, our baby in the backpack singing to the bear, a cliff behind us, my husband reaching to his belt for his pathetic weapon. Play dead…play dead…play that woman and her son with tomatoes all over them in Israel, frozen, watching paw over paw hurl toward me over lupine and Indian paintbrush and yarrow, huckleberries. But I don’t know about the market bombing yet. And there is no bear. But I don’t know that yet either, sitting in the car in the hardware store parking lot.gnp_4

The day is done. Pepper spray– check. Pants and a sweater for later– check. Teva’s for the beach– check. Sunblock for the baby, three extra diapers, wipes, baby food, sun hat, a change of clothes for her, life vest– check check check check check check check. Back pack, fanny pack, water bottles, trail mix, sunglasses, camera– all checks. Bathing suits, towels, beach-blanket, rafts– yep. A cooler full of cold beer, sandwiches and whole milk in baby bottles– done. Gas– we’ll get some. Where are my sunglasses? Have you seen my sunglasses? Oops, forgot the keys. Where the hell are my sunglasses? On top of your head. Oh. We need bear mace. That stuff costs forty bucks…you have a better chance being killed in a car wreck than by a griz, anyway. Put your seatbelt on…we’re getting bear mace– we have a kid now. All right all right all right.

The day is done. We used everything but the pepper spray. I look at my husband, still losing light at the same rate as the Whitefish range, and feel safe and in love with him for carrying the baby in the backpack, the mace on his belt, pumping the gas– little things he wouldn’t want to know I loved him for. Little things that free me up to think about breathing and seat belts and bleeding bodies covered in tomatoes, and grizzly bears. I let go of my baby’s hand and reach for his again. He is where I want to be.

It’s all stars now. They call it big sky and they’re right. What are you thinking about? I whisper. Nothing, he says. I sit there and try to think of nothing, watching headlights come at us at seventy miles per hour on my baby’s side, pull at my seatbelt quietly to see if it would really stop me, nothing…nothing… I look back to see if she’s asleep. She is. I reach my hand back and rest it on her chest. She is breathing. Nothing…nothing… I put the same hand on my shoulder and feel the hot from the sunburn. My mother has had five melanomas removed from not wearing sunblock. Nothing…IMG_0804

I am left with my breathing. Check. My heart beat. Check. A raven sky. Countless lights twinkling…God, they really do twinkle. Twinkle twinkle little star– I figure out that it’s the same tune as the alphabet song. And then I am left without songs, because one of the stars loses itself in dust and falls right in front of us, right on the highway. We pass where I think it has fallen and look for stardust and leftover glow, but there is just an old cracked double yellow linesee that? I say. The star? he says. And I look for another; pick one and stare at it, ready to see it go down. But the longer I stare at one, the more I see all around it, and none fall, and it doesn’t matter, because I’m going deeper and deeper into the biggest sky I have ever seen, and I have lived here for years now, and I’m not thinking about that either. I am lost, in star after star after star after star…after star. After star. And I am there, wherever that is.

If you would like to take a break this fall and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call!

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Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

cap tossas seen on mamalode.com

I can never remember if the word “commencement” means beginning or ending. My knee jerk reaction is to think that it means ending, though my writer’s mind quickly corrects it.

That’s probably because graduation ceremonies are called Commencement, and I think of graduation day as an ending– leaving the known behind: a good reputation, dear friends at a stone’s throw, families whose refrigerators and bikes and kitchen tables are yours for the sharing… the dismantling of decorated walls soon to betray you for guests, or someone else with new photo collages, new tapestries, new blue ribbons. I have never been good at leaving the familiar, and I usually mark it with a little hidden graffiti—Laura Munson lived here, and the dates.

But it’s not my turn this upcoming Commencement. It’s my daughter’s. Now it’s she who is dismantling her room, coming down to the end of her check list, five more days of school to go, graduation invitations in the mail, college deposit in, orientation dates in stone. There is a new timber in her voice; something dire. “Mom, can you do something with my Breyer horse collection?”

“Can’t you just leave them on your shelf?” I ask, vignettes reeling by of mock horse races on the lawn and barnyard feedings with tiny plastic apples, and that one coveted palomino paint that became real one Christmas.

“I need room for my stuff.”

“What stuff?”

And then I realize that the stuff that has been strewn all over her room for the last four years of high school actually could have had a home in her bookshelves if we’d been more able (or willing) to pack up her plastic horse collection.  I’m not sure whose job this is. Please Lord, not mine.

I look into her eyes. And I see…it’s my job. Some things are just too hard.

Suddenly, I feel a desperate need to give advice in fast forward. “Have I taught you how to make hospital corners? And to never leave a wet towel on a bed? Or leave a glass directly on wood?”

“I know. Respect the wood. You’ve told me.” She’s tolerating my Mom-ness much more than usual lately. She’s in the bittersweet of Commencement while I am bursting into tears in pathetic public places, like at the bank drive thru, catching myself in the video screen looking miserable. Will her roommate know that when she needs a hug but is too shy to ask, she makes tea? Will she know that she likes to sing in harmony and that all those eye-ball rolls don’t really mean anything? Will she know that she acts street-tough sometimes, but is deeply sensitive and if she’s playing the ukulele along with Jack Johnson, something pretty rough probably happened at school that day?

“Mom, why are you crying?” she says, bringing me back to the grim task of packing up her happy childhood.

“I’m sorry. I’m just going to miss you.”

Last week was when it really hit. I was doing laundry and I heard from her room in that new dire timber, “How do stamps work?”

Stamps? Like postage stamps?”

“Yeah.” This from a 4.0 student.

I went into her room. She was sitting on her bed addressing graduation party invitations. “Really? You can program a computer, but you don’t know how stamps work???”

“My generation doesn’t really use them.”

I was sure she was playing a joke on me. Stamps? But she wasn’t. She really had no clue that you use the same stamp for a local letter that you do for one that goes all the way to New York City.

Geez– what other glaring omissions have there been in my mothering? I’ve tried so hard to fill in every blank, taking every single second possible as a teaching moment. “Maybe I should write you a survival handbook for college and beyond. Would that be helpful?”

“I know all the basic stuff. But yeah…maybe the extra stuff.”

I wracked my brain, taking inventory. The extra stuff. If stamps are “extra” this could get ugly! I decided to do it room by room, compartmentalizing life in cross-section, like the dollhouse we spent hours decorating and playing in.

Kitchen:
I started with How to boil water, tell if pasta is ready, smell a gas leak, turn off the water main…but suddenly it turned into a different kind of “extra.”
• If you’re having a bad day, leave the dishes. But do soak them, or you’ll really be in a bad mood when you get around to cleaning them.
• If you’re having a really bad day, don’t adhere to the utensil slots. Just chuck ‘em all in and let them fall where they may. Actually, if it’s a really bad day, just leave the dishes alone. They can wait.
• No matter what kind of mood you’re in, make yourself a nice meal, especially if you’re lonely.
• Always eat some fruit in the morning and some veggies at some point in the day. Keep bananas, carrots, apples, and potatoes around. They do the trick when you’re not feeling inspired.
• Keep a granola bar in your purse. (Tip: Use only small purses—lest you end up with a Mary Poppins carpet bag, coat rack and all. Read Nora Ephron’s essay on women’s purses.)
• Splurge on really good jam and really good bread.
• Always have a flower or a piece of greenery in a vase on your kitchen windowsill. It really helps.
• If you see evidence of mice, set traps immediately. This probably will not apply to 99% of the places you’ll live, (we live in Montana), so take it metaphorically: See s*** for what it is and get rid of the source before it gets out of control.
• If you use To Do lists, get rid of the word “goal” and replace it with “possibility.” You’ll be nicer to yourself that way.
• If you find yourself writing down something that you’ve already done on a To Do list, just so you can cross it off, you might want to stop making To Do lists.
• Allow yourself to grocery shop without a list, but not when you are hungry. You might surprise yourself by what ends up in your grocery cart—like rhubarb or radishes or kale or pistachios!
• Always smell fish before you buy it. If it smells like fish, it’s no good. Also, look into its eyes. They should be clear. This also applies to boyfriends.
• To cut goat cheese, use dental floss. (Unflavored! Duh. Don’t roll your eyes.)
• To make Deviled Eggs, put boiled eggs into cold water/ice bath. When cool, cut in half, shell ON, with sharp knife, then scoop egg out with spoon. Magic!
• Learn how to make homemade chicken broth. (Ask your mother)

Living room:
• Splurge on nice candles. Light them for yourself daily. Light the not-nice ones for guests. Not the other way around.
• Lie on the couch and do other things than watch TV. Like read a book or listen to classical music.
• Watch old movies. You know…back when people used stamps, and women dressed for travel. There’s a lot to learn from the “olden days.”
• Limit TV.
• Listen to NPR. Especially opera on NPR. Pretty much everything you need to know about life is in operas.
• Make sure to have musical instruments and keep them within eye-range so you’ll actually play them. Guitars and pianos welcome group jam sessions.
• Always have a drum somewhere for that person who claims they “aren’t musical.”
• Have board games and cards in a drawer or on a shelf. Play them. Especially Scrabble, backgammon, gin rummy, Farkle, and Scattagories.
• Have guide books and binoculars. It’s good to know your birds and flowers and other critters. Even in the city, there are hawks.

Bathroom:
• Have nice hand towels and nice soap in your powder room. Your guests should feel special.
• Use your powder room. You should feel special too!
• Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in each bathroom.
• And a plunger. (Replace plungers every-so-often, unless you are the type to wash and disinfect toilet plungers. Dirty secret: I’m not. That’s what the second flush is for.)
• Don’t forget to wash the toilet flusher handle when you wash your toilets. They are dearly overlooked. (Try not to think about that too much in hotel rooms.)
• Put nice art in your bathrooms. And magazines. You can learn a lot about a person from their bathroom.
• Supply room spray.

Bedroom:

Don’t be a slob.  Pick up your clothes.  If they’re not dirty, put them somewhere to wear again during the week, like in a hamper in your closet. NOT on a chair. And definitely NOT on your treadmill. Like your mother. Who then forgets she has a treadmill.
• Wash your sheets at least once a month.
• Splurge on nice sheets and feather pillows.
• If the person/people with whom you are sharing your room snore, make sure you have earplugs by your bed.
• Supply your nightstand with books that you want to read when you grow up: a book of poetry, a spiritual text of some sort, a classic novel, something on the best-seller list that is not written by a celebrity.
• If you eat breakfast in bed, use a tray. Crumbs are worse than bed-bugs in some cases, especially if you’ve listened to your mother and splurged on good bread.
• Eat breakfast in bed, but not lunch or dinner. That means you’re depressed.
• Do not let your dog sleep with you. Or your babies. They need a bed of their own, and so do you.
• Sleep in every-so-often. Like till eleven. This will get harder and harder the older you get.

Closet:
• You’re on your own on this one, but do get nice hangers if possible.
• Oh, and do accept that your “skinny” clothes are probably a thing of the past if you haven’t been able to fit into them for a few years…

Office:

Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own, even it’s in an eave, or a closet under a stairway, or (if you’re lucky enough) a whole studio over your garage, or an unoccupied bedroom, or a renovated garden shed.  Claim space for yourself!

• Don’t allow people to come and go without knocking.
• If you have children, always have an available chair in it for them. It’s important to have your own space, but it’s also important that they know that your work does not take away your motherhood.
• This one is really really important: Whatever it is that you do in that office, whether it’s a vocation or avocation, make sure it’s something you love. NOT something that you are necessarily good at. If you happen to be good at what you love, then that’s a bonus, but not a rule!

Outside:
• Have a communal outdoor space that feels like a room in your house, but isn’t exactly…like: A screened porch, fire escape, hammock, hot tub, front stoop, garden or terrace. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a place where you sit at least once every few days and dream a little.

A few extra extras:
• Write handwritten notes on nice stationary to people you love. That’s where the stamp comes in…
• Try not to kill bugs. If they’re inside, put a mason jar over them and take them outside. They do elegant things like lick the wax off the peony buds so that they can bloom. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) (Mice are a different story. If you’ve had one die in the walls, you’ll know what I mean.)
• Practice Yes and Possibility instead of No and Not Possible. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative. You don’t want the latter.
• Have fun, for crying out loud! Life is beautiful and heartbreaking any way you slice it so you might as well enjoy the ride!
• There is no such thing as cool.
• Judge not.
• Don’t mistake a full schedule for a full life. If you find yourself saying, “There’s never a dull moment,” you should probably make it a goal to have at least one “dull moment” every day.
• Take walks. (especially in the rain)
• Sing.
• Dance.
• Read poetry.
• Have dogs.
• Grow a garden.
• Travel.
• Create the sacred wherever you are.
• Be kind to old people and remember they know a lot more than you do. Ask them to tell you their stories.
• Know that there are saints everywhere. Look for them. They’re often where you least expect it.
Call your mother. Texting is a challenge since she can never find her reading glasses. Plus, she likes to hear your voice. It reminds her of lying in bed with you when you were little, reading books, singing, praying, watching the moon, dreaming. And she loves you no matter what, which is hard to find.
DRINK WATER

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