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A Journey to be WHOLE: How the Science of Happiness Really Applies to Motherhood


What is WHOLE?


This is a question I’ve long held—even before I had a word to capture what it is I’m (still) seeking to understand.


Technically, WHOLE is an acronym that organizes the science of positive psychology I studied into a framework of hope. Striving to be Well-nourished, Hopeful, Open, Loving and Engaged (WHOLE) are pathways of self-discovery in a multidimensional approach to resilience. WHOLE is a practice—my unique way of navigating life with more vitality, passion, authenticity, clarity and harmony.


That said, I am well aware how this science-based language can make your eyes glaze over. WHOLE is a way to survive, to thrive, and to flourish, but empirical validation simply cannot control for the breadth and depth of flourishing in the spiritual experience that is motherhood—my domain of application where hope is an essential ingredient on the decades-long trajectory of parenting.


I once hoped to package WHOLE as a solution with guarantees and promises, but as I like to say, “motherhood came along and knocked the wind out of my perfection sails” with an intervention clad birth and then postpartum anxiety cast a dark shadow on my first year as a mom.


During that time, I found myself sitting across from a Park Avenue psychiatrist confessing:


I’ve studied happiness.

I have every reason to be happy.

I should be happy.

But I’m not happy.

What’s wrong with me?



I’ve since been on a journey to understand how the science of science of happiness really applies to motherhood, because my bookshelf filled with carefully studied self-help books preaching “how to (be better than you are at any moment) threatened to bury me when I was down.


My observation is that in motherhood, there is no clear way to define success and a million ways to fail. With a shift in perspective, we might recognize a million opportunities to gain resilience and grow, but happiness is as complicated as it hard to locate in the witching hour.

Furthermore, translating linear theoretical thinking into a cyclical abstract reality has proven to be a task akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole.


In fact, my attempt to wrestle what I’ve long called “WHOLE Theory” into a submissive solid structure is a bit like creating order in the kids playroom. I’ve spent hours mindfully returning every block, lego, car, truck, pretend piece of fruit, cake, picnic plates and barbie part to its rightful place to achieve that glorious moment of order I created with my own two hands while the kids were not around. But when they eventually come barreling in to play, my work is undone in a matter of seconds, restoring their space to the messy container of fun it is meant to be.


My belief is that some things in life are not meant to be measured, controlled or finished—most especially the laundry and the dishes, but apparently (and perhaps most importantly), my thinking about what makes a life worth living with kids in the mix.


I note with optimism that this feels less like a “failed experiment” and more like an eternal work in progress with each passing year. At the very least, it is an exercise in patience while curiosity has expanded my awareness from science to faith and all the other fascinating matters I’ve contemplated in between—while wondering what it really means to be WHOLE.


In motherhood, there is no clear way to define success and a million ways to fail. Therein lies a million opportunities to gain resilience and grow.

As a word, WHOLE is what it implies—that elusive concept of being whole, which has something to do with balance and the delicate dance between determination and surrender it requires.


The matter of dancing is ironic when I consider the end of my career as a professional dancer marks the beginning of all I was yet to uncover on my pursuit of wholeness, including my calling to be a writer. While I effortlessly strung together those words into a positive sentence about a monumental life transition, the other half of my reality was the painstakingly slow and messy process of becoming where I trudged through chaos and confusion to find my way home.

No, nothing was lost in surrender, but my way from struggle to hope did not unfold on a linear trajectory of growth. Rather, it was a word by word, day by day commitment to the creative process I believed in because of what Anne Lamott told me in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.


I note that somewhere in between the death of my career as a dancer and the birth of my authentic writing voice lies a million and one bad first drafts about the wholeness of the truth I intend to tell you.


“Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth” is the introductory quote Elizabeth Gilbert opens Eat Pray Love with, and it’s what I heard when my cheek was pressed against the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. I am 24 years old in this scene of my life after dancing when the sight of two blue lines on a stick dissolved the carefully crafted vision of my newly resurrected best possible self and all she was yet to accomplish before becoming a mom.


While Gilbert’s story moved in the direction of free-spirited adventure I longed to, I was destined to remain and become a stay-at-home mom. Regardless, her valiant example of how to transform a bathroom moment of despair into hope led to the days I proudly wore 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 find everything Liz was seeking in Indonesia within the constraints of all that suffocated and inspired my creativity.



Over a decade, eight pregnancies, and five children later, I write about my search for everything within the motherhood experience and the artistry of my faith.


“Tell the truth” is a persistent echo that has guided me through the process of unlearning what does not feel right as I reach for that which speaks to my heart in the way the book, Simple Abundance always has—a gift from my mother to my grandmother that I inherited when she lost her battle with breast cancer.


I open the cover and read the inscription dated July 10th, 1997:


Dear Mom:

For your comfort and joy!

I love you-

Gayle


Five pages later, you will find my writing manifesto in the blank space before Sarah Ban Breathnach’s inspiring foreword about her process of creating Simple Abundance. On March 4, 2010—days after my firstborn turned one, I inscribed:


As my daughter reached her first birthday, I was wrought with mixed emotions. The first year was as joyful as it was difficult…and the milestone carried this duality of emotional extremes.


The week leading up to this turning point, I scoured my pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum books looking for comfort. Nothing resonated with the longing in my heart for the support I needed, but couldn’t find.


How do I describe my transition to motherhood complete with its postpartum darkness and the anxiety I’m so desperate to escape?


For miles I’ve run, away from all that makes me not good enough. The finish line of a marathon tells me I’ve accomplished something good, but am I?


I hold questions and this book—Simple Abundance—because it beckoned from the shelf with its salmon pink cover of flowering femininity and words of “comfort and joy”—authenticity is what I crave above all.


Inside the cover I run my fingers along the inscription from my mother to my grandmother, for this is the book she held, thumbed through the pages with her hands — the hands mine resemble.


Her hands highlighted and underlined quotes and sentences that spoke to her, and I cherish her marks as clues to the past of my maternal lineage. My great grandmother named her first and only daughter “Renee”—though we are not French.


This name was was passed onto my mother, to me, and now my daughter claims it—but why? Why did my great grandmother choose this name? What struggles have I faced that are hers? What must be healed?


Through a name I must understand and a book I’ve long cherished, my grandmother speaks to me:

I am not alone.


Holding this book and the thought of my maternal ancestor lineage, I felt the desperate urge to reach for a pen and write these connections my soul is making to this book and all that is swirling beyond it, beyond me.


I must write the truth and share words of comfort and joy for other women on a journey into motherhood and beyond…..



I keep this sacred treasure on the altar in my office where I write as a reminder of truth, which resonates at a level that transcends words—what might matter to a woman in need of nourishment and authenticity.


I feel this universal wisdom Sarah birthed into existence that I too must bring forth beating like the billions of beautiful hearts Pink was singing about today in the soundtrack of my afternoon carpool shuffle. I am but one in the vast cosmic whole, as different as each one of my kids, but my individual expression matters in its reflection of my unique perspective and the possibility it might inspire. Therefore, I surrender the notion that WHOLE needs to be anything more than a story about gathering the bones I sing over now with the Love that I am. This is the wild wisdom of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who insisted in Women Who Run With the Wolves that I must go out and let stories, that is life, happen to me.


I started writing in early motherhood, simply to cope, wondering if I would ever have the courage to share my truth, but I became a storyteller at my toddler’s bedside in an ICU Burn Unit when I sent an email asking for help.


In the decade that has passed I’ve written both to survive and to thrive, while dreaming of publishing a book. Many experts have insisted I must build a platform and write with an authoritative voice to be a success…


But here I am living out the questions locked in my heart—certain only that I’ll never be finished growing, shifting, learning, and trying to make sense of all I feel and know to be true, and that’s what you’ll find here in my notes on love, creativity and everyday magic.



Yes, this is the end that is the beginning, or the beginning that is the end. There is no end point or stagnant state we arrive at to be whole. It’s just the alpha, the omega, and the infinite space of possibility that exists between. This is where I choose to remain, holding WHOLE as a mysterious question connected to the vivid dream I once had about being devoured from the head down by a snake that was somehow an extension of me.


The dream was peaceful, though I woke up terrified—for I’ve feared snakes since childhood. Eventually, I learned that the serpent eating its tail is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world called the ouroboros.


To devour oneself and be born of oneself is a metaphor for rebirth that is said to be an expression of infinity or wholeness, but I intend to write more about that in essays to come, along with the countless synchronicities that have awakened me to awe—a transcendent emotion researcher Dacher Keltner explains is “fleeting and evanescent….a feeling so elusive that it resists simple description.…that requires the unexpected, and moves us toward mystery and the unknown rather than what is certain and easy….”


In the meantime, I’ll end this note with a question I asked at the beginning of my journey, because Mary Oliver’s sacred curiosity bears witness to a truth that (still) inspires me to rise, to heal, to grow, to flourish, to create, to dance, to be whole:


Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

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