Sherry Antonetti is a freelance writer, blogger and published author of The Book of Helen. She lives just outside of Washington, DC with her husband and their ten children.
Six years ago, I gave birth to my tenth child, and wanted to nurse her exclusively. I knew she’d probably be my last and I wanted to savor the perceived end of a part of motherhood. However, mothering ten children, including one with special needs, means you don’t sleep when the baby sleeps. You get tackled by the daughter who wants to read with you the library book she checked out that day, papers to sign for the older ones for field trips that require checks and looking at your insurance cards, requests for new shoes, questions for Solomon-like decisions about issues like “What’s for dinner? Can you help me with my homework?” and “Would you tell my brother it’s my turn to use the computer?” You sleep when everyone else has gone to bed and that’s pretty much it. Multi-tasking doesn’t work for naps.
For the next few weeks, I tried to nurse her. I carried her in a sling to keep her close as I patrolled the house and managed my two-year-old and four-year-old while the others attended school, and tried to fit in nursing as much as possible. She liked to be held. She slept a lot. My sister came to help me and to visit for her baptism. She looked at my daughter. “She’s hungry,” she said. I agreed. I lamented that she didn’t seem to ever be satisfied. “Give her a bottle,” she told me. I explained my desire to hold onto nursing. “Give her something to eat,” she said, and added, “You may have to surrender this.” And I realized, I was holding onto something I really couldn’t.
We gave her a bottle right away and came up with the sibling bottle plan. I would have someone make a bottle while I nursed, and when I finished, she could have a bottle with one of her brothers or sisters. It worked. My infant daughter became less sleepy, less fussy. My children enjoyed feeding and caring for their youngest sister. Sometimes even I gave her the bottle, and relished the extra time watching her suck and grow content and full. It took my sister’s gentle push of “surrender.” Six years later, I heard a similar voice from a friend on Facebook, someone lamenting their inability to do all of it, to nurse when they had so many others to care for, and I told her the story of that little surrender. Surrendering is always giving up something we could control, not something we can’t. Loving is always giving of the self, not of our excess. If we look at the crucifix, we see God’s love on display. It is a total surrender, because Christ loves us, more even than he wants to not be nailed to that cross.
These days, I’m learning a new means of surrender as I deal with the ups and downs of parenting adolescents. She’d started the morning rough, and after mishearing something her sister said, exploded, not just at her sister but at the whole world. Trying to reign her in, I attempted to use my authority as Mom, but she defied me. I insisted. She grew more belligerent. She exploded again, this time storming up to her room. I wanted to be high and mighty. I felt annoyed. I didn’t want this drama and it was over nothing.
Fortunately, her room is upstairs. I didn’t want to deal with this. I needed to pack lunches, to help get the others ready for school. The bus would be here in fifteen minutes. I also needed to get myself ready for work—but I also knew, only I could bring her back down. Walking the stairs, I could feel the push, the same push my sister’s words gave me six years ago, the same push I’d given my friend when she faced a similar crisis in mothering. “Surrender.” I didn’t want to surrender.
I heard her crying in her room. “Surrender.” And I knelt by her glass door. She sat slumped against it. “Go away,” she sulked. “I love you.” She shook her head. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.” One would think saying it over and over again would make it easier, but it didn’t. I had to tame my own desire to lecture or to bring up the subject which triggered it.
Saying it over and over again, just as saying route prayers over and over again, made me mean the words more, until I stopped thinking about anything but saying them to her. If one could imagine ocean waves rippling through the air, she and I both softened with each utterance. She just needed to hear “I love you” until it sunk into her bones. I needed to say it until I surrendered my desire to win.
“Do you want to come downstairs?” She picked up a toy Barbie and made it nod its head. “Do you need a hug?” She threw open the door. The landscape with my youngest daughter six years ago and with my friend’s daughter now, was surrender, feed the body, let go of control, and just love. The landscape with my adolescent was emotional, but the need remained the same. Surrender, let go of control and just love. She melted in my arms. She didn’t need me to assert my authority. She needed me to assert my role as mother, which is you love your child, enough to surrender whatever it is, be it breastfeeding or parental ego, on the cross. Walking down the stairs, she helped get the backpacks in order and stowed the lunches. Joy returned to the household. They even made the bus.