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A Childless Mom Teaches Motherhood

The joy of motherhood did not come easily to me. Even though this beautiful baby slept long, ate well (finally), and adored his dad, I felt like little more than a milk machine. I wondered if this marriage, move, and motherhood-thing had ruined my life. During the first six months of life with Baby Soren, he seemed pretty much an alien from outer space, someone with whom I yearned to communicate.

To understand Marion Cooley's rescue of my life, you also need to understand what it was like for this city girl to move to Ripon, Wis., in the middle of the worst winter they'd seen in 30 years. I am from Minnesota stock, but that winter it was -30 for three weeks.

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My pride in the important work I did out of a home office kept me out of the normal routine of meeting other young mothers, having lunches, shopping. On top of this, my husband, Donald, took the car every day. I felt stranded. Loneliness, self-doubt, and desperation were daily enemies.

I met Marion at one of Donald's concerts. We couldn't afford a baby sitter, so the baby was cradled in the back row while Donald performed Renaissance motets and Medieval plainsong with his early-music ensemble. Marion had introduced herself in the lobby, and it was clear she was more interested in Soren than in me. She talked softly to him as if they were already friends.

"I've been waiting to meet you for a long time," she whispered through his sleep. Acknowledging me briefly, she asked if she could sit with us.

By the end of the second love song, Soren was asleep on her lap. After a couple of successful concert experiences, Marion offered to help with the baby while I was shopping. Soon he was spending two afternoons a week in her apartment while I did church work.

Awe is the only word that described me watching the two of them together. Her welcome of him was wholehearted. She turned her apartment into a laboratory of learning - first with pots and pans, then with her box of old jewelry. Card castles, tiddlywinks, learning-to-crochet balls of yarn made every visit a new discovery.

Outside, they fed the birds, chased dogs in the park, and explored with a magnifying glass and binoculars. I remember the time I found both of them giggling under a tent made out of TV trays and blankets; they were so pleased they had successfully hidden from me. Watching her, I was learning step-by-step how love and action are the same thing.

Children had taught Marion the love of life, whether she was playing a tough game of Scrabble with her dynamic seven-letter words, or serving guests pizza on her Haviland china (with olives on the side in a crystal bowl). Her 70-plus years had included many children, though she had never married. The oldest girl of six children, Marion was caring for little ones from the beginning. Her career as a photographer found her volunteering to take pictures of servicemen's babies while they were away at war. Those grateful men got updated shots of their children every three months until they came home.

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Her moments of self-doubt were few. One of them was around the time our second child was born, six years after the first. Marion had been ill, and was not certain she'd be strong enough to lift the baby. But with every visit, her delight seemed to renew her energy. Soon their romps echoed the times with Soren. During the boys' last visit, they were showing her the intricacies of their new Swiss Army knives. She wished she had one.

What Marion helped me see is that children don't interrupt life - they engage you in it. No matter what the effort a child requires, it pales before the blessing the child brings.

My first memory of admitting this was when I found myself smiling at Soren's morning chatter in his crib. That morning the urgency of getting him washed-dressed-fed-settled before my morning's work yielded to the freedom to laugh and sing a good-morning song. Marion whistled through most of her routine duties, and being with children was an extension of the music in her heart. Children were not a project, but a blessing.

And just as children have unlimited potential for growth, learning, and discovery, so do moms and dads, aunties and uncles, and friends. I've always known that responsible parenting had something to do with moving civilization forward, but now I see that includes adults, too. We are blessings to be appreciated, too, not projects to be accomplished.

To me, the difference between coping with children and being blessed by them is the listening that allows you to learn from them; they teach in ways few things can. I remember the boys' patience and persistence in learning to walk, their unconditional welcome of new playmates, and their confidence in learning new things. They've taught me to jump in the pool regardless of how cold it is, to run down the path in the woods even when my heart is heavy, to make sure my face is still happy even when I have to think long and hard.

I UNDERSTOOD this again when I visited old friends Betsey and Reinhold on a trip back to Ripon last year. Their daughter Kara had just moved back home with her husband and six-month-old triplets. Even though both young parents had good jobs, child-care costs in Boston had been unbearable.

When I arrived, the three babies were sitting in their highchairs, eyes sparkling at the excitement of a new visitor on the farm. The front parlor was full of three blankets with three separate sets of toys; the den had three cribs, two changing tables, and too many packages of diapers to count.

When Reinhold came in from the horse barn, his hug was quick before he dived to rescue a toppling Baby Benjamin from his first attempt at sitting up. His sisters had mastered sitting up a few weeks earlier and were confidently exploring the details of the bows on the grown-up visitor's party shoes.

Grandmother Betsey had the glow of a new mother herself as she told of the major adjustments that had come over the household. The sacrifice for all had been enormous, but worth it, she said. The delight, innocence, courage, and wonder the children bring outweigh the effort they require.

Marion would say that's true whether they're your own, the neighbors', or kids from the shelter.

* This Sunday is Mother's Day.

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