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The Beauty of Standing Still

alec vanderboom

Ten years ago, I undertook the very first empty vacation of my life--three months of maternity leave with my first born, my Hannah. If you have ever held a newborn for more than twenty seconds, especially if its your own, my calling maternity leave a "vacation" should make you giggle. Or become furious. Or experience both feelings at the exact same time.

When I was pregnant with Hannah, I was so emmeshed in this psycho-cult of "smart, achieving womanhood" I could not remember ever standing still. Even in the summer. Especially in summer.

Starting in the fourth grade, I started acting in summer plays, collecting ribbons from Sailboat races on Lake Michigan, earning accolades at camp, and striking out while playing church softball. In high school, I started collecting special summer programs the way some people collect stamps. In college and law school, summer break was about gaining valuable experience in important sounding internships.  I'm not sure who I was trying to impress with this endless cycle of activity--but subconsciously it seemed vital for me to never stand still.

With this pattern of compulsive "movement", one of the most frightening aspects of being a new mother was the decision to take the full 12 weeks of maternity leave (mostly unpaid) offered to me by Clinton's Family Medical Leave Act. For the first time in my memory, I'd be "not working" for a season. I was going to be staying still, with a new baby, and nothing on my calendar for weeks.

It felt awful.

I remember soothing myself with this vision that I would garden. I would put the new baby in her bassinet, and while she slept, I would work on my plants.  (Which because I was a compulsive workaholic were still imaginary. I hadn't planted anything in the front yard of my rented house yet).

The baby came 10 days late. To distract me, my husband drove me to the local nursery every day and bought me more plants. We were crazy maniacs. Every single day we dug up a new part of the yard and planted more stuff. We planted a vegetable garden with broccoli, and a wildflower butterfly garden. Then the new baby came in March. We were so overwhelmed with new parenthood that we never went outside to weed for the entire summer. The broccoli actually started to flower these tiny yellow petals and tasted tough and sour when I sautéed it on our range. We became the eye sore of the neighborhood. People actually knocked on our door to tell us how bad our front yard looked. Every month out of guilt, Jon would mow down the ragged weeds in the "butterfly garden" and throw another bag of mulch around the vegetable garden.

When my new baby came, I stayed alone on my uncomfortable guest bed that I had inherited from my aunt. I nursed my baby while watching back to back episodes of Law and Order. I watched TV. I read. I slept. I showered. I started to fall in love with a new human being.

When I went back to work after 10 weeks, (I caved into guilt that my absence was too hard for my co-worker and cut my maternity leave short by 2 weeks) I was totally shocked that I'd "done it." I had stayed still. I'd done "nothing" for way longer than I ever thought possible.

I hadn't gone mad. I wasn't bored. In fact, the exact opposite. I felt that staying still, inside my house, doing "nothing" (I apologize for thinking once that caring for a young soul was "doing nothing" but that's how my 28 year old mind worked at the time. Baby cuddling didn't count as "work" in my brainwashed head).

I liked who I was when I was sitting still, cuddling Hannah. I liked reading real books. Thinking real thoughts. Making real stuff for dinner. Hanging out with my husband with the pressure of having an uncertain court case 12 hours away. I went back to full time work after my maternity leave was over. I worked my same job for the next 9 months. Yet in many ways, I never went back to work. I big piece of my heart "checked out" of the achievement rat race once I became a mother. I'm so grateful to my kid for that chance, because I think she saved the best part of myself that I buried back in the fourth grade.

This past 4th of July, I took my first "staycation." My husband stayed home for 9 days straight, counting the weekend. We were too poor to do anything. So no camping trip to Harper's Ferry, or trip to the Beach. It felt unnatural and strange and odd, but also--really, really good.

I like who I am when I'm standing still. I like having silence on my calendar and silence in my heart. I don't always like the emotional goo that comes up whenever I stay still--it still feels too good to distract myself with multiple family activities and fun outings. I still like spending money too much. Getting off the "Lets do something fun today" is proving a slow and painful detox.

Yet, there is a beauty in standing still. The harder the virtue of silence is in my life, the more I need it.

Teresa of Avila, pray for us.