Adamant Ties

May 15, 2016

Jesus, lover of my soul
Let me to thy bosom fly.

When babies are new and tiny and soft, they curl perfectly into a certain place on your chest. If you’ve ever held a newborn, you know what I mean. Here’s what I wrote about my third baby shortly after he was born:

[W]hen I hold him against me, his warm, fuzzy head nestles into my neck and his legs curl under his bottom, remembering their formation inside me. Bundled on the slope of my chest, he seems to fit into me even more perfectly than before.

That baby is now almost 17—a tall, hairy teenager. It doesn’t matter, though: that place on my chest still longs for him, and for all three of my children. Once a baby has nestled there, that spot is never the same, never without a hunger for connection with that child.

Mothering is, I have learned, a lifelong practice of separation and reconnection. I remember how difficult it was to leave my babies when they were small. At first, any separation, even for a few hours, quickly became physically painful for both of us. We needed each other for the practical symbiosis of breastfeeding: their tummies needed filling, my breasts needed emptying. Even after weaning, though, leaving them felt like stretching invisible connective tissues tying my heart right to theirs. No matter how exasperated I might have been with them, no matter how much I looked forward to a few precious hours without a child crawling all over me for heaven’s sake—still, once apart, I would long to feel their little hugs again, to draw them into my arms, feel them supplying the missing pieces, leaning against that spot on my chest and fitting into it again, for a moment.

Now I know: that feeling never goes away. Never.

Most of the time, of course, I’m not thinking about it. My children are grown up now, and I go about my daily business. Sometimes, in fact, I’m surprised—and a little dismayed—by how many hours can pass while I’m not thinking about any of my children. Much of the time, I don’t know exactly where they are or what they’re doing. I certainly don’t know what they’re thinking—unless they plainly tell me, which they may or may not, especially the boys. About age 7 or 8, children gain an interior life, and a veil of mystery comes between you forever after. Then you depend on communication, a haphazard, trial-and-error project if there ever was one.

This is all good and right. I don’t long to go back to the days when they were little. In fact, I love having the house to myself when our youngest is off at school or work or a concert. We’re looking at an empty nest in a couple years, and I must say, I like the idea.

The other side of growing up, though, is that my children’s problems, when they have them, are adult-sized. Often, I can do nothing to solve them. If any one of my children is hurting or in trouble or facing a big decision, then, too, that place in my chest hurts. I brood on their behalf, obsessively and with fervent prayer.

My daughter, 23 and graduated from college and married, leaves today for five weeks in Ghana. I miss her already. On Monday, my 20-year-old son will come home for a couple weeks after his junior year in college. I haven’t seen him since February. When he comes in the door, we will hug, and his young man’s muscular shoulders—though nothing like that tiny baby bundle—will fill that spot just for a moment.

I wonder if we could call that place the bosom. It’s an old-fashioned word, but it has the right connotations. It implies intimate, abiding connection. It comes from Old English (and Frisian and middle Dutch, I’m happy to say), and it’s familiar to us through its use in older Bibles, especially the King James: The Messiah shall carry the lambs in his bosom. Lazarus rests in the bosom of Abraham. The Son dwells in the bosom of the father. Interestingly, the word has implications not only of intimacy but of empty space. The OED establishes that a bosom can be an “enclosure formed by the breast and the arms” or a “cavity, a hollow interior.” Yes, that’s why it can be full or empty. That’s why it can hurt.

I’ve been thinking about all this not only from a mother’s point of view, but from a daughter’s. This week marked one year since my mother died. When I’m driving down streets near her home, when I’m filling one of her crystal vases with flowers, I miss her, and I feel a sensation like a weight sinking in my chest. I miss many things about her—her voice on the phone, her laugh, her funny sayings, our conspiratorial schemes. But I’m surprised how much I miss her physical presence. I came from her body and it was familiar to me all my life. Her face, her hands. I watched her body age and grow weak. I watched it struggle for breath at the very end.

“Birth is as solemn a parting as death,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. Yes, and we feel them both in the bosom.

I understand my mother’s love for me better now, but becoming a mother also opened up a whole dimension of God’s nature that I never understood before. This fierce, even painful connection to my children, is that what God feels for me? Is that possible? Does God have a bosom?

Here’s another thing I wrote long ago, about my daughter when she was a baby:

[S]omeday she and I, too, would feel both the adamant ties and the heartbreaking distance between us.

I could put words on this at the time, but I did not understand it experientially as I do now. I did not understand the power of the bosom. I did not understand that even when all the children are fine, even when I am feeling joyful about them, there is still a hollow place they opened up in me, and my heart is always breaking for them. Always.

If I multiply that by infinity, is that something like the love of God?

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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