On Faith + Flourishing
The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all,
and then stands back to see if we can find them.
The wheels of the airplane lift off the ground, and I feel the weightlessness of acceleration that’s different than any other time I’ve taken off to travel. Tears begin running down my face, and I realize I’m in the process of “letting go” of all I’ve been holding onto, perhaps too tightly. With nothing to do but embrace the strangeness of being physically untethered from my husband and the five children I’ve left behind, I find myself looking back across the trajectory of my motherhood experience that began almost 15 years ago to the date when I first saw two blue lines on a stick.
I ride this jet stream towards France, away from the familiar ties that bound me as I brought my children into this world. I am unlike the woman I once was, and I feel into this new vastness of my being. Suddenly, there is no new life growing in my womb, no infant needing to nurse, no toddler tugging at my side, no one asking for another “thing” they want, and the cavernous space that is now my heart, which has swollen to meet the demands of nurturing, feels like miraculous growth. Yet I know my capacity to hold, witness, and love unconditionally has expanded perhaps as slowly and unseen as my womb each time it stretched with life over a nine-month period.
At some point in the overwhelm of responsibility, I realized that each day my children woke up different—with new words, skills, and nuances to their personalities they didn’t have when I tucked them in the night before. “This too shall pass,” a phrase I often spoke to myself, referred to all of it—from the infant musk and sleepless nights to snuggles and tantrums. Indeed, I’ve been enveloped by the sea of impermanence since the day my heart cracked open with the vulnerability that became my birthplace of growth. That’s when I started treading water to stay afloat in those dichotomous emotions that crashed against me, asking, “Are you going to sink or are you going to swim?”
I tried valiantly to swim against the tides, each stroke a monumental effort fueled by those great expectations of all I needed to be or do more of. My oldest now bleeds with the cycles of the moon, and my youngest recently freed me from 14 years of diapers when he finally decided to potty train. I’ve made it this far because I learned how to roll over onto my back and float, allowing the weight of the water to hold me as I surrendered to the current that carried me in new and unusual directions.
When my ears are immersed in the water, just below the surface, I can hear the channel of awareness that runs within me, perhaps as powerfully as the tide of life that carries me into the space of unknowing. Flourishing is not a stagnant state we arrive at but rather a continual process of growth that requires moments where we feel and look a bit messy. Yet how easy it is to believe what is taught—that I should stifle my authenticity and speak only with grace, containing the rage that shouts in another vibration of truth. It seems I must hold back the frustration, sadness, shame, guilt, fear, and everything else that must be silenced by the boulder of perfection in my stream of consciousness. Yet the question I’ve long been contemplating as I seek to transcend my ancient fight or flight wiring and raise thriving kids in this modern world is:
What determines a “good mom” anyway?
Without the undoing and the cracking open of my heart a bit more with each new child I couldn’t fathom being “enough” for, I wouldn’t have had the space to swell with the love each child has asked of me. Without roaring like a lion over spilled breastmilk or the doctor who brushed off my intuition, which was indeed accurate, I might not have understood the fullness of this Love that I am. Ultimately, without the shattering of my expectations into a million pieces over and over again, I’m not sure how I would have tapped into that peace within me—where I am both broken and whole in the eye of the storm—an eternal process of death and rebirth that is parenting in a noisy world where the research on what determines how our children will thrive is as discordant as the emotions I feel during the witching hour. This is the wholeness of the truth that must be spoken about flourishing in motherhood and, ultimately, in life.
And what of faith? That’s what might begin where science leaves off—when every article, book, or expert voice has been turned inside out and there is no one “right” way to do anything, let alone begin to explain the losses or the miracles. Faith is perhaps what I needed all along, and I discovered it by diving into the depths of my soul, where I gathered the pearls of Knowing that had been ground into treasure under the pressure of the darkness.
The Magdalene Thread
I’d say I went to France to find the words I write now, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald at La Closerie des Lilas, but the writing that pours forth reflects the years I spent pecking away within the confines of being a stay-at-home mom who was so “stuck,” so “stagnant,” so “trapped.”
I wanted to find myself before motherhood and lose myself to all that I thought was bigger and more important than me, perhaps like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. But my bathroom floor moment of despair led to macaroni and cheese-stained yoga pants while I dreamed of eating pasta in Italy, the transcendent ability to not hear “Mom” while I was wondering what it would be like to pray (in silence) in an ashram in India, and the hope that if I could just keep showing up with love, I’d come to believe that I already had everything Gilbert was seeking in Indonesia.
Still, I tried to be more than I was in any given moment, blinded by the “Goddess Myth,” which manifested as my determination to be one of those “natural birth warrior” moms. Then, I reasoned, I would be something “more” than “just a mom” who “dabbled” in writing to create something meaningful outside of the kids. But the truth about my creative output is that I didn’t write a word worth sharing before I became a mom, and the illusion of perfection started to crack when I woke up after my intervention-clad birth wondering what I had done wrong and how I was going to keep my daughter safe as the “failure” I felt I was. Postpartum anxiety is something I desperately fought from the day I brought life into this world. But then again, all those irrational fears and negative chatter might have been a reaction to the half of me I tried to run from, cover up, and avoid—until I almost lost my son to an accidental scald burn.
It wasn’t just the social worker’s suggestion that I was a “bad mom” for not preventing the injury; it was the world we inhabit that doesn’t like scars. I thought the journey I needed to be on was to fix what was emotionally wrong both within me and then physically wrong with my son, but it was a losing battle that forced me to own my truth about the nature of my being. I, like my son, am scarred but brave in the way that Thunder, Perfect Mind suggests:
…I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one…
Eternally, I am as cleaved as Mary Magdalene, for she who bore witness was she who was deemed the worthless prostitute, who in the biblical literature was either conflated with other women or erased. Magdalene, a “tower of strength,” who spoke of Goodness, Love, and inner Knowing with words that resurfaced after thousands of years. For me, she is every woman who is “not enough,” yet “strong enough” to hold space in a storm, bearing witness to suffering and transformation. She is the working mom riddled with guilt, the stay-at-home mom who is silently imploding, and every projection in between cast through the lens of negativity. Maybe that is why I left my family to find her in southern France, where legends say she lived and taught, and I wandered through an ancient forest to a cave, thinking I could reclaim what was lost by walking in her sacred footsteps.
Yet despite all my seeking, Magdalene remains shrouded in eternal mystery because she was never the point. For me, Mary Magdalene was the space of possibility, a guide, the voice in the desert, and, in many ways, the energy of hope itself that led me “home.” For what I was meant to find was there all along: the whole self I wanted to be the day I became a mom or the enlightened narrator of the book I expected to have published in a year, then two, then decades after I first felt the creative rush of something to be born of my most authentic voice.
To Be WHOLE
I’m not sure where the expectation came from that I would have a “platform” to stand on, and something cohesive to say by the time I was 40. But here I am living out the questions locked in my heart knowing that it’s time to write about the journey of my “coming of age,” where my only certainty is that I’ll never be finished growing, shifting, learning, and trying to make sense of all I feel and know, but somehow this is what I understand it is to be WHOLE.
To be Well-nourished, Hopeful, Open, Loving, and Engaged (WHOLE) is an acronym that at first helped me organize the research of positive psychology inspired by the tenants of flourishing developed by Marty Seligman. But it wasn’t until I stepped outside the boundaries of academia and then the Christian traditions I’d been raised in that the journey of wholeness really began—when I became enveloped by color, numbers, patterns, and the synchronicities that transformed my life from the inside out. I could suggest WHOLE is a holistic approach to resilience and sustainable wellbeing, but the only data I have is the stories of my experiences and what I observed about concepts such as happiness, resilience, hope, manifestation, and spirituality along the way.
For years, my writing was interrupted by another baby, another move, another thing “distracting me” from expressing myself and speaking my truth through this work I called “WHOLE.” Now I see how the years in the “desert” allowed me the space I needed to process and grow into the voice with which I now write. At times, I thought I was avoiding the discomfort of sharing from the most intimate chambers of my heart. Some assumed it was my perfectionism that kept me writing the same darn book for years because, draft by draft, I let every word written go. I would carry on living, experiencing, feeling, and being, and in time, often when I least expected it, the words would begin to flow again. Nothing was ever lost in a carpool shuffle or another meal prepared, and the W-H-O-L-E I always returned to was a mysterious rhythm that beckoned me to “know thyself” above all.
My journey to be WHOLE might have culminated in France, but it was lived in everyday life, where I would pull threads of thoughts in stolen moments from that space beneath the surface. I heard and gathered it all amidst the bickering, playdates, games, recitals, milestones, laundry, and meals. There were times I rose before my family to connect with the light within me and write. There were times I rolled out of bed and was swept up by the tides of life that left me feeling washed up in a creative desert. But those periods of wandering with parched lips and blistered feet in search of flow were a crucial part of my everyday pilgrimage. For that’s how I learned to discern the oasis from the mirage, surrendering every last expectation I had about this body of work that is nothing short of a calling.
I’m currently writing my memoir on faith and flourishing, and if you subscribe here, I'll let you know when it's available. In the meantime, I offer seeds of my journey to be WHOLE through my stories on perspective and possibility at La Suvera Farm.
Assad, Alicia (2016) 4 Little Words My Pediatrician Told Me That Changed Everything
Assad, Alicia (2016) I Didn't Believe in Rainbow Babies
Assad, Alicia (2019) How Shifting the Focus to Gratitude Helped My Family Heal
Assad, Alicia (2015) Growing Through Adversity
Gilbert, Elizabeth (2007) Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
Gilbert, Elizabeth (2015) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Howorth, Claire (2017) Goddess Myth: How a Vision of Perfect Motherhood Hurts Moms
Seligman, Martin E. P. (2012) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing
Alicia Assad, MAPP writes on faith and flourishing.
Alicia's work is born of her experiences as a mom of five and builds on a devoted spiritual practice, her training as a professional dancer, and studies of wellbeing at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was one of the first 100 students to earn a Master of Applied Positive Psychology. To be WHOLE is a framework of hope that blends stories, science and ancient spiritual wisdom into a practical application of self-help in our complex modern world.
As Miss New Jersey, Alicia was the youngest contestant in the Miss America 2002 Pageant and recipient of the Overall Elegance & Lifestyle award. A former Radio City Rockette & Wilhelmina Fitness Model, she earned a BS in Arts Administration and Dance Minor at Wagner College. She is certified in Pilates, Health Coaching, Reiki & and Colour Therapy. A two-time runner of the NYC Marathon, she is a practitioner of yoga, meditation, and various energy healing traditions.
After moving from New York, to Hong Kong, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and back to New York again, Alicia feels blessed to live in Bedford at La Suvera Farm, where she is committed to "grow and give" alongside her family & rescue animals.
“If you are seeking someone to guide you in your quest for purpose, balance, ritual or simply exploring the many roles you play as a woman - Alicia is your dream weaver and coach.”
-Kristin Gregory Meek, Founder & CEO WYLD Leadership
“In my mind’s eye, Alicia, is one of the leading voices around motherhood, a Goddess.”
-Elaine O'Brien, PhD
“Alicia's posts are like sacred script. I hang on every word. And they ring as true now as I mother my older children as they do for those in the newborn stage.
Astounding, profound, inspiring.”
-Tracey Clark, Author, Photographer, Teacher
“Alicia is the Prose Laureate of Motherhood.”
-Eleanor Chin, MAPP, CEO Clarity Partners Coaching & Consulting