“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”
-Joseph Campbell (and my friend, Lauren)
Imagine a desert.
A giant sea of sand stretching seemingly forever in every direction with only the expansive white-blue sky and burning sun for company. Empty dunes and sky. The only sound is the foreboding high-pitched hum of the heat. This is where I am right now. Do you see me?
The image can seem quite bleak. One might wonder, what have I done to deserve this desert, to be stuck here? What torture and suffering is this? But, the truth may surprise you. I’ve committed no great sin. I (naively) volunteered for this desert, and even now that I see it, now that I am here, I don’t want to be rescued. I’m terrified, I’m exhausted, and I want to stay. It’s mine, and it means something to me.
Because this desert - this is where I become a mother.
I don’t think I fully understood this before, but motherhood is a journey that takes a lifetime, or so it seems from my current vantage. And more specifically, it is a hero’s journey that will last me a lifetime. I am only at the beginning of mine, my daughter has recently celebrated her first birthday - but my sense is once you begin being a mother you never stop being a mother, it just evolves.
A mentor of mine taught me about the hero’s journey, and in doing so he pointed something out to me that makes perfect sense considering most cultural norms. Often, women don’t realize that they are on a hero’s journey and that they are, in fact, the heroes of their own story. We are all heroes on a hero’s journey. What happens inside of you when I say you are a hero in your story? Does it resonate, or do you reject it like I did? To clarify, I don’t mean a hero like in the movies - someone who is invincible and dashingly handsome, who saves the day and gets accolades and attention. I mean the hero from our ancient stories. The one who is utterly human, heavily flawed - who walks a path that is treacherous and long. They are a hero because they know it is hard, and yet they keep going because it means something. They try to be the best versions of themselves every step of the way, they fail repeatedly, but they get back up (or let someone help them back up) and they continue on. THIS is a hero. This is the journey of motherhood, isn’t it? It’s many different journeys, I speak about moms because that is what I know - but if this imagery resonates with you, be you mother, father, guardian, or person - then you belong here. I only say mother because this is what I know.
Motherhood, for me, is unfolding as a journey that for now feels like a march across an endless desert. Just me, my daughter, and the horizon. (Do I have a partner? Yes, an incredible one. But this isn’t the journey of co-parenting or of family. ) This is my journey of being shattered and put back together again, of being molded. Truly, of being forged in the fire. This desert is where I shed all that I thought I was, because my daughter won’t let me hide, and I can’t bear the weight of it anymore anyway. All the trappings of who I tried to be - the right kind of woman in this world - the right daughter, the right friend, the right wife - and even, the “right” parent. I drop it because perfect is no longer even a remote possibility, my mask has been torn off. I’ve been cracked open and my daughter has shined a spotlight on my most tender insides.
So, this where I drop it all.
I drop it, I pick up my daughter, and we walk.
It’s hot, dry, and we are alone. Sometimes an ally appears and carries her for me for a while, and the break is a relief. Someone brings me a sip of water, or wipes my brow, and it’s a blessing. But, she always comes back to my arms. I will never truly be ‘done’. This knowledge makes the desert seem very big, and very lonely (even with a partner). It would be easy to fall to my knees in this desert, set her down, and weep. And sometimes I do. But then, I get back up, or ask someone to pick me up, and we continue on. Because ultimately, as the sun sets on each day - we belong to each other. She is me and I am her. And not in the way that she is a little Kate destined to carry on my legacy; she is, very clearly already, herself. But in that she is OF me. She was built, piece by piece, of me. And I feel that in my bones when I look at her. And it’s why I cross this desert. And it’s why I don’t want to be saved from it - no matter how thirsty, how burned. I want help, I want support, I lean heavily on my guides - but I don’t want to be rescued. I cross it without a doubt in my mind that it’s where I belong. Today, I must carry her across, and then one day perhaps I’ll walk alongside her, and then one day I’ll follow along behind. But it will be she, and it will be me - step by step. She doesn’t know that I am of her as well. That without even trying, she is building me, piece by piece. Every moment she and I are together I feel my choices unfold before me - she unknowingly presents me with my options for the next step. And I choose. Sometimes from my heart - with strength, warmth, and love; sometimes from my shadow - with fear and anger. And then we take the next step.
My greatest fear and greatest hope is in HOW I cross this desert. I will crawl, and scramble, and fall. Up each dune and down the other side. My dream is that I cross this desert in a way that makes me proud of myself, that grows my vulnerabilities into strengths, that I find self-compassion, and that she arrives on the other side - whole. My greatest fear is that I won’t, and that she won’t.
It has become astonishingly clear to me. This is my life’s work. To cross my desert in a way that leaves me proud of myself. And to carry her, walk beside her, and then one day follow her in her deserts so she knows she is never alone. It’s not just about raising a happy kid, though that’s part of it. It’s about becoming the kind of person that can raise a human who feels she is whole. It’s a lofty goal, and perfection isn’t an option, but in the striving is where I hope to be found. If you ever discover me having lost my way, you have my permission to hand me my compass and send me back out there. I am flawed, my hero’s journey is only beginning and the way forward isn’t clear, but, I am the hero of my story. I get to be brave and valiant, and be struck down, and rise again. As do you.