Sun Dance

summer on the river

summer on the river

I went to the beach at Paradise Cove at the end of summer with two women friends and our four teen-age daughters. We divided into two camps on the sand and settled in for the afternoon – the girls a little ways off by themselves obviously suffering through lying on a beautiful beach in Malibu in the company of their mothers. One of the women left California years ago and the last time we spent an afternoon like this, our daughters must have been in grade school. We had a lot of catching up to do. A few minutes into sunning and sharing, one woman realized that the scars from her mastectomy were showing at the edges of her new bathing suit top.  “Battle scars,” I said, without thinking.  We all laughed spontaneously in acknowledgment of the scars we each carry after a few decades as wives and mothers.

The scars that women carry are for the most part invisible. Beneath our clothes we hide the scars from childbirth. The swelling of pregnancy and lactation has stretched our bodies and breasts and our skin is festooned with silvery stretch marks. Our bodies are scarred from c-sections, episiotomies, hysterectomies, tubal ligations, hemorrhoids, prolapsed bladders and mastectomies. We hold the emotional scars from miscarriages, stillbirths, infant deaths, abortions, divorce and the inability to conceive a child. As mothers, we shoulder the responsibility of shepherding our children through this world and carry the scars from battling the illnesses and dangers that have threatened their lives. Among my circle of friends, these have included complications from premature birth, whooping cough, brain cancer, pneumonia, spinal meningitis, respiratory distress syndrome, failure to thrive, herpes of the eye, heart disease, liver cancer, crohn’s disease, diabetes, heroin addiction, heart attacks, personality disorders, lupus, enzyme deficiency disorder, alcoholism, comas, sexual abuse, cancer of the eye, back surgeries, choking and countless broken bones, knocked out teeth and stitches.  We have sat by and climbed into our children’s beds at home and in hospitals, holding them, soothing them, watching over them and guarding them from all know and imagined harm.

We have defended them and gone into battle for them with their teachers, principals, camp counselors, doctors, other parents and even their own friends until they became old enough to stand up for themselves. We have struggled, as they grew older, to let them fight their own battles with addiction, eating disorders, cutting, bad relationships, and every imaginable and unimaginable form of self-harming and reckless behavior.  We have stood on the sidelines through all of this helpless, wringing our hands, trying to be stoic, and providing strength for them through our own faith and belief. It is as if we took an oath with each birth to keep our children alive, get them educated, teach them the basics of self-protection, self-care, financial responsibility, sobriety and socialization. In our oath we also agreed, when all of that was finished, to wave goodbye smiling as they sailed away from home and out into the world. Each milestone, struggle and accomplishment tugged at our hearts. The process is a long and challenging initiation ritual for us as well as for our children. It is the Sun Dance of Motherhood.

The Sun Dance is a rite that celebrates rebirth and renewal. It requires sacrifice, courage, immense hardship, and supplication. The participants are promised spiritual rebirth for themselves and their relations, as well as the regeneration of the Earth, and harmony between all living beings. Traditionally women are not pierced during a Sun Dance ceremony as they have already faced death and pain in childbirth. Motherhood is it’s own Sun Dance lodge. Generations of women have paused at the entrance to this lodge in which we will dwell as mothers, and then entered aware on every level of all of the trials and challenge that wait for them inside. I have loved my time in the Motherhood lodge. Still, I believe that it is a miracle that women, willingly and knowingly continue to choose to go through the door. I wear my scars from this part of my life with pride. They are invisible but not a secret. They are a reminder of every moment in my children’s lives etched into my body and into my heart.

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