By Alice Irene Whittaker
Everything is grey and green where I live. The nearly-disappeared snow is filthy with pebbles and the sage-coloured lichen on tree branches is covered in springtime rain. Mist and fog blankets the forest.
The underbelly of our dog, Bear, is muddy as he ventures off-road and into the dirt. We’re still in that in-between season that comes after winter before spring finally arrives. My five-year-old daughter recently called it “mud season, with snow and rain!” and she’s right. It’s a season of all three and the combination is messy.
The change from one season to the next is ambiguous. I keep expecting winter to tidily roll over to spring, and yet this year we seem to be caught in an extended limbo between the two seasons.
It reminds me of the ambiguity I feel as I try to gently parent my three children in a period of self-isolation and global pandemic. It’s an in-between space, caught between the old “normal” and whatever comes next.
I’m uncomfortable in this uncertainty, but nature’s change of seasons reminds me that transition is always messy.
Transition is not the only lesson that Mother Nature is teaching me about motherhood. In fact, she is my greatest teacher as I navigate natural parenting, and her lessons are many.
Mother Nature teaches patience. The change of seasons and the slow growth of plants remind me that everything happens in its own time. Nature can’t be rushed and neither can children. Every child has their own path, and I work to respect the pace at which they grow through their seasons. My five-year-old daughter still crawls into our bed at 3 am, while my two-and-a-half-year-old son never liked sleeping with us – he needs his space. My sweet eight-month-old son isn’t sitting up by himself yet, whereas his older siblings were able to do so at his age. I know these differences will only become more pronounced with time as they each develop into their older selves. I’m learning to be patient with their journeys, rather than hold onto a linear, fixed set of milestones that can make parents feel as though their kids are ‘behind’.
Mother Nature teaches how to give generously. Coyote mothers bite the fur from their bellies to line their dens and keep their babies warm. This act of giving wholly with one’s body reminds me of breastfeeding, as I nurse my third baby. Before a plant or tree grows, a seed cracks open and breaks to give way to roots and sprouts. I’ve cracked open like that. It reminds me of birth and new motherhood.
I fought against it with my first baby, when my identity was cracked open when I was exhausted, raw and emotional.
I see now that cracking open is part of the process of new life, and that the life-altering change of becoming a new mother is natural. Instead of society’s story that a mother should “bounce back”, I’ve embraced the reality that radical change is necessary. That bigness and softness are good, that vulnerability and surrender require courage Nature is teaching me to reject the story that productivity is all-important and that humans are purely selfish. I’ve internalized those stories, and it is taking hard work to undo them and realize that humans are a giving species. Luckily Mother Nature is there with her seed cracking open to show me that giving generously is the fertile ground from which growth and love happen.
Mother Nature teaches boundaries. Her frontiers and laws are non-negotiable. Mothers also have non-negotiable boundaries. I’ve had to dig deeper into my well of patience and energy than I ever thought was possible, but I too have limits to what I can give. Parenting is most easeful and sustainable when my boundaries are firm and consistent. I have to steadfastly set these boundaries so that I have space for what I need – not just for sanity, but also for fulfilment. Boundaries allow me to receive what I need, and they help my three young ones to feel safe and held.
Mother Nature teaches nurturing. She gives so graciously of her gifts: food, water, air, soil. Biodiversity, fungus, and intricate cycles. Nature allows us to live our lives by nourishing us, while also pushing us to grow through adversity and challenge. She gives us everything we need – but doesn’t hand it over on a silver platter. She nourishes us and offers us choice – without being too precious. As a mother, I strive to do the same. I want to nurture my children wholeheartedly so they can thrive. But the balance is in giving enough space for them to choose their own adventure and form resilience through independence, choice and error.
Mother Nature teaches adaptability. Flora and fauna change constantly, finding ways to adapt to new circumstances. This one is hard for me. I’m learning (and re-learning) that motherhood is about constant adaptation: a new baby, a change of schools, the end of naps, the start of secrecy around nightmares, another new baby, grappling with shifting anxieties, illnesses that come unexpectedly. To say nothing of the ever-changing global issues of our day, layered over the individual lives of each family. Being adaptable to these changes is a survival strategy as a parent. I try to balance my kids’ need for a consistent rhythm with the ability to gently adapt to changing circumstances. This skill will serve children well as they grapple with the shifts of the future, just as it has served nature for billions of years.
Mother Nature teaches hope. Not the fluffy hallmark-card type, but the hope that keeps us persisting no matter what. We are parenting through a particularly difficult time when we have the tall order of raising children amidst a global pandemic, economic downturn and climate change. Nature provides a model for hope in her ability to regenerate. When land is left to rewild, it is awe-inspiring how quickly nature takes hold again. Soils cleanse themselves of artificial fertilizer. Wildlife returns to their habitats. Plantlife regrows, first with mosses and plants, and eventually towering trees. Mother Nature has the ability to grow, regrow and regenerate. She must be resilient, and so must I. When dark worries about my children’s future come in, I focus on nature’s ability to regenerate, and it gives me hope that we can weather tough storms.
Finally, Mother Nature teaches imperfection. When I walk the forests around my cabin, I see without judgement that the trees are crooked, misshapen, curved, scarred. It is harder to look at myself with that non-judgement. On the forest floor, moss starts to grow through an imperfect process: its spores fill in the patches of soil that were ripped bare by the heel of a boot, a log that was overturned, or a chipmunk’s fast-moving feet. The water cycle and the healing of soil and the change of seasons all take place in a non-linear, imperfect progression.
I am not perfect at transition, patience, giving generously, boundaries, nurturing, adaptability or hope. Nor will I ever be. But I’m learning.
Just like my teacher Mother Nature, I am ever-evolving.
About the Author: Alice Irene Whittaker is a writer and mother of three children. She is currently working on Circular Living: Nature’s Lessons for a Regenerative World, a non-fiction book, as well as This Grateful Geography, a collection of nature poetry. She has been published in The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, She Does The City, and magazines and newspapers. She is the Director of Communications at an environmental-economy think tank. She has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and was awarded an author’s fellowship for the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing for 2020. Alice Irene lives in a cabin in the woods in Quebec, Canada. Connect with Alice on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.