Dance with Them
Reviewed By Catherine K. Arveseth

Thirty Stumbling Mothers Share Glimpses of Grace

That is the subtitle to Kathryn Soper’s new anthology. Her first, The Mother in Me (published last year) was a stunning collection of personal writings by LDS women about growing into motherhood. It’s a must-read that topped out as my favorite mothering book last year. The sequel, Dance with Them, is equally poignant and moving, but can be enjoyed independent of the first.

Dance with Them is a compilation of essays and poetry written by women who, as Soper puts it, “get up every morning to attempt the multi-faceted balancing act we call mothering – particularly, the mothering of school-age children.” While The Mother in Me focused on mothers with children ages 0-5, Dance with Them is written for mothers with school-age children.

Children in these delicate years seem to require just the right amount of parent proximity. It’s a bittersweet season where children are yearning to be on their own – and to our conflicted dismay – beginning to let go. This book is for all mothers who find themselves “stubbing toes and bonking heads amidst their best efforts and good intentions” writes Soper.

Contributing writers explore issues of independence, control, tolerance, intimacy, expectations, safety, trust, acceptance, boundaries, conflict, “and perhaps most of all” says Soper, “the difficult reality that both mothers and children must learn through experience.”

In the introduction Soper quotes Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who discusses our fragile faith in love and relationships – particularly with our children.

We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.

Although my five children are still at home (my oldest will start kindergarten next fall), I can feel the brevity of these early years. Sometimes I find myself staring wide-eyed at the “ebb” of their babyhood. The “growing-up” tide keeps licking at my ankles, catching me unaware, no matter how often I adjust my beach blanket and try to enjoy the view.

Soper, conscious of every mother’s resistance to change – her insecurities and fears, offers readers a beautiful angle from which to approach the complexities of mothering school-age children. She proposes that we become dancers. “When they push, you pull. Move with them. Make it a dance, not a tug-a-war” recounts contributor Sharlee Mullins Glenn.

In her essay, Dance with Them, Glenn continues,

A dance isn’t about power or control. A dance is about trust, connection, cooperation, flexibility, and fun. A dance is about two people moving together, however awkwardly, trying to make things work, trying to create something beautiful, something symbiotic. For beginners, the movement is often clunky and halting. Toes get stepped on, people stumble and slip, sometimes they even fall. But then, hopefully, they laugh (or cry), help each other up, and start again.

The Dance

With seven children of her own – ages sixteen to four, Soper is right in the middle of this “school-age” phase. She likens the dance between mother and child to our personal relationship with God.

The dynamic relationship we have with God [is] a connection that ebbs and flows just like our connection with our children, drawing us close to Him one moment and giving us some distance the next. For wise parents understand that this is how children grow…Every day we live the complexities of loving kids who drive us nuts, of understanding kids who seem like alien creatures, of negotiating everything from breakfast menus to necklines to major life choices. As well as moments of indescribable sweetness and satisfaction, mothering inevitably includes the agony of watching a child hurt as a result of his choices, of yours, or the randomness of life and nature. and just when you think you’ve got this situation or this phase or this kid figured out, everything changes. It takes a lot of faith to trust that the smoothness and the stumbling, the conflict and reconciliation, the closeness and distance are necessary flip sides of growth and continuing connection. Sometimes, it takes a lot of hope to believe our relationship will endure because of change, both hour-to-hour and year-to-year, not in spite of it.

These subjects, discussed by Soper and her writers, are at times heavy, hard to reconcile, and profoundly affecting. From mothering a child with special needs to the disappointment of sin and the joy of repentance. From the pain of divorce and blended families to a mother’s wavering testimony, the included essays make it obvious that this next phase of motherhood opens up a fissure of seismic emotional challenges. A pandora-like box of complications unleashed on top of the already exhausting demands of a young family.

I felt like I was reading the prep manual for my next mommy phase. I became acutely aware that my five little people will soon become big people – wannabe independents with huge choices, wielding their freedoms, suffering hurts and disappointment. I began to wonder (as have most of these women) am I ready for this?

We’re All Scared

It is evident. We’re all a bit scared.

“The balance is turning, and with each passing year I will be less the all-knowing, all-powerful mother of my imagination. It scares me” writes Angela Schultz.

Lisa Ray Turner writes, “At first, it was easy: three sons in five years left me little time for contemplation. Pimples, proms, and hormones seemed a lifetime away. But lifetimes go fast in the span of motherhood, and here is my oldest son, perched on the edge of puberty. He scares me to death.”

Perched on the edge of puberty. I had to laugh, but yeah – scary! They scare us. And we scare ourselves – worrying over mistakes (ours, theirs, past and future) and the fact that we cannot control their worlds. Yet, as Angela Hallstrom noted, women of God trust in His ways.

If it were up to me, they wouldn’t be asked to suffer a day in their lives. Which is why it isn’t up to me.

These women acknowledge their fears with honesty, while carefully sifting through feelings of protectiveness and ownership to arrive at a place of peace – even if only for the moment. With God whispering in their ears, they realize they will be alright. And so will their children.

Amid the stumbling, tripping and bonking of heads (which makes for absolutely delightful, riveted reading), Dance with Them glimmers with a handful of beautiful, graceful truths. Mothers who know God would never trade the risk and hurt of this life for one without their children. With Him as their partner, the possibilities and joys are endless.

To Each Her Own

Soper has a way of attracting excellent writers. Each essay and poem is a dance of its own. The steps vary and the the mood can change quickly. From fast and wild to slow and lilting. Each mother has her own style and rhythm – every essay the product of a wise and talented author.

The poetry in this anthology is also breathtaking and should not be overlooked. I’ve held onto several images.

A child dashing headlong into the waves, a couch considered holy ground, children in Halloween costumes, a patriarchal blessing, Christmas cards, the “tender tether” of a mother to her daughter, children “blowing off the earth in one long sigh,” and the gift of watching a soul unfold.

One particular poem titled, Early Harvest, by Melissa Dalton-Bradford, impacted me deeply. Written about her teenage son who died too early in a river accident, the emotion of it was raw, beautiful, and perfectly balanced by her faith in Christ. The patterning and pairing of her son with The Son was masterful.

As for the essays, here are some excerpts from mothers who shared truth so eloquently that even if I couldn’t relate, I had to nod in agreement.

From Emily Halverson’s essay, A Doughy Heart and a Contrite Spirit.

I like it when my heart feels soft and open, doughy like an under-baked cinnamon roll. But it’s hard to stay soft. In spite of a serene early-morning routine – not a creature stirring, pink dawn spilling in through slanted window blinds, my heart “stirred up” by God’s words – as my day unfolds, I am often hardened by minutiae. Floors sticky with watermelon juice, a demanding bill from the Children’s Hospital, my sagging abdomen that disrespectfully boasts of five pregnancies. A moment before, I was smooth, stir-able pancake batter, but five minutes after “clocking in” to my mortality, I’ve formed a rust thick enough to require a firm wooden spoon and some elbow grease to whip it back into submission.

From Tracy McKay’s essay, Wonder, in which she recounts the year of her divorce and the way she bravely took care her children.

People keep asking me how I’m doing. I never wanted to be divorced, to be a single mother, or to walk in life alone. Yet I am calm and centered and, oddly, feeling closer to God than I have in all the years I was trying to make someone else choose wisely. I am untethered. I am free to hear the Spirit now, in a way that was locked to me when I was praying for someone else’s agency to be violated, when I cried out, missing the answers I wanted, not hearing the answers He gave.

And this comment about divorce, which was so powerful.

Divorce ripples out and out, and changes people who thought they were far enough from the ragged epicenter to be safe. No one is safe. Divorce, while first a deeply private and painful rending, surprises me in being also a communal sorrow.

I loved Kylie Nielson Turley’s wise comprehension of the Atonement in her essay, Tightrope Walking.

The healing waters of the Atonement are deeper than I know, deep enough to absorb and extinguish the searing sorrow of the world, to bring peace forth from the ashes of sorrow, sins, and heartbreak. That is the safety net below me as I navigate this wobbly tightrope of life; it’s not a simple magic wand of a prayer that stops all pain before it starts, nor is it the bouncy pillow that cushions all the hurt like a giant marshmallow. God’s safety is not what I want it to be, and that is not an answer that my heart easily accepts or that any mother wants to know. People I love will get hurt, and I won’t be able to protect them or take away their pain. That terrifies me. But I hold out a firm hope that redemption is real, that nothing that happens to me or my kids – whether I cause it or not – has the ability to remove us from God, nothing but a personal choice to leave. The world and its accidents, my agency and its consequences may leave me despondent and desolate, but the soothing calm of the Atonement promises that we can be safe in eternity.

From Lisa Ray Turner’s essay, Enjoying the Ride

We climb aboard the bikes and tear down the hill. The trail flattens and we pedal faster. We whoosh past a field sprouting a new shade of spring green. I look at my son on his bike in front of me, his legs pumping furiously and his wheat-colored hair blowing in the wind. I’m not sure what’s next for us, but I feel more prepared to face the future. Devon isn’t scary. He’s my kid. His adolescence might be tumultuous for us both, but maybe if I loosen my grip on the handlebars and spend more time appreciating the view, it will be easier for us to enjoy the ride.

And from The Freakin’ Fifteens by Nancy Harward.

Think about it. Fifteen-year-olds think almost entirely of themselves. They have learned enough to know that talking can get them into trouble, so they stop pronouncing the words clearly or stop speaking altogether. Fifteen-year-olds have learned how to operate a vehicle – at least they think they have – but are prevented from driving anywhere by unfair, antiquated laws. Fifteen-year-olds try very hard to get the attention of everyone except their parents, but those unfair, antiquated people try equally hard to prevent them from enjoying the attention of anyone who matters (read: members of the opposite sex.) And when they get frustrated, fifteen-year-olds can rant as well as any toddler.

I laughed out loud more than once while reading Harward’s essay.

I rejoiced with the Mother whose forgiven son was able to baptize his eight-year-old sister. I cheered for the Mom who let her son grow a “rat-tail” lock of hair even though she wanted to snip it off while he was sleeping. I was awed by the mother who wanted to drive her son to the state penitentiary, but ended up in the parking lot of the temple instead. And the mother who took her daughter to get her ears pierced – earlier than planned? That entire story made me smile. Dance with Them reminds us that, as mothers, we must listen, feel, then move when the Spirit moves us. That is the beauty of the dance.

Gone for Good?

Milestones will continue to come and go too quickly. Giving up ownership will always be tough. And sometimes the craziness of simply getting everyone where they need to be will make us want to shout like Darlene Rowley, “Stop this calendar. I want to get off!”

But as Kathryn Soper writes, the connection between mothers and their children is eternal. Something that will “never be gone for good.”

I realize now that despite the dips and turns that will transform their lives, and mine, and the connections between us, my kids will never be gone for good. For we’re partners in the same pattern: children of God living so close and yet so far from home, learning intricate two-steps with other dancers both mortal and divine. Yes, our lives will change – in ways both subtle and dramatic. But the dance between mother and child will never end.

What a comfort.

Dance with Them has potential to create a whole new movement among LDS mothers. A floor full of dancing moms doing their best to get in sync with their children (and God). Put this philosophy into place and maybe I can look forward to having four in high school at the same time!

Whether you are anticipating this stage or past it, the stories and wisdom of Dance with Them will leave you changed for the better. Hurrah for Kathryn Soper and her staff of writers for putting out another tremendous and influential work that gives so many mothers a voice, and the rest of us, an illumined perspective.

Kathryn Lynard Soper is the editor and founder of Segullah – a literary journal that publishes LDS women’s writings. The Segullah Group is sponsoring its first Writer’s Retreat this June. Click here for more information. And enter their giveaway for a free copy of Segullah’s 2010 Anniversary Issue here.

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