By Aubrey Wallen
“You never know how amazing you can be until you have to be.” I’ve never known any words to be truer in my entire life.
I am a Montessori teacher and spend my time with young children every day, which is, and has always been, my calling. I believe my work is a service toward a higher purpose.
However, I have always known deep within my heart that motherhood would be my true transformation into the person I was created to be. I’ve held a deep, almost primal faith that through mothering I would be actualized as a human being. Only then would I make the unique contribution to the world for which I was specifically made.
So naturally, I have spent a lot of time visualizing myself as a mother, my children, my interactions with them, our home environment, my parenting style, and the rhythm of our family life. All of my decisions, dreams, and intentions have lead me toward this singular, ultimate goal.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I experienced a typical array of emotions. My daily flow of feelings ranged from crushing anxiety and doubt to soaring confidence and extreme anticipation. I felt the weight of all my dreams being just within reach, and had mixed emotions as the time crept on and my belly grew more and more ripe with my mysterious, wiggly baby safely inside.
I was afraid I somehow wouldn’t be able to be the mother I had always dreamt of being. I was terrified of being too much like my mom. I was afraid of labor—that pain was so abstract and so foreign to me, I fixated on it and let my fear permeate my mind, heart, and spirit. It overwhelmed me.
Simultaneously, I was a radiant, sage mama-to-be who had instinct oozing out of my pores. I couldn’t wait to begin this long-anticipated journey with my wonderful husband and our precious little one.
My son, Joseph Michael Wallen, was born on Sunday, May 22, 2016. He made me a mother. He made my husband a father. He made our parents grandparents, and our siblings aunts and uncles.
At 34 weeks, he broke my water and was delivered via c-section, and very immediately after his birth it was clear that Joe would not live a typical life. A very rare bone disease kept his skeleton from growing and strengthening as typical babies’ do, which led to many complications with his internal systems, his respiratory system being the most fatally afflicted. His lung development was too restricted to allow his own breathing to supply oxygen to his body, so a ventilator provided the necessary support to keep him alive.
For seven days, he lived in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. From Sunday to Saturday, my husband and I learned to care for our son and gave him as many life experiences as we could before deciding it was time to separate him from his ventilator. My memory of the time we spent inside those walls feels as if it was a completely separate life, occurring in an alternate universe.
Although quite an unimaginable sequence of events, Joseph’s life was nothing short of miraculous. This child grew to be 4 pounds, 9 ounces inside my body before he needed to be free, at which point he orchestrated the exact circumstances necessary for us to meet, for me to be his mama, and for us to be a family with his daddy. When I left my recovery room at Mercy Hospital and joined my baby’s side at Children’s, every worry I ever had before he came was completely erased. Upon meeting this tiny human that I made, I stepped into the light of the truth I had been endlessly seeking: I was a mother now, I was Joe’s mother now, and I knew exactly what I needed to do.
Since Joe passed, I have been walking the path of motherhood looking through an entirely unexpected lens. It goes without saying that I never planned for this to happen… I sometimes think about the fact that he was born, the fact that he is no longer living, and the fact that I have no physical way to connect to him anymore, and I feel suffocated by grief.
But, the truth of all of this is that I cannot ever feel only sadness—I cannot truly be overwhelmed by grief because of the unbounded joy I feel. The complexity of sensations and emotions, the entire experience of becoming a mother, completely defies and exceeds the limitations of language.
The closest thing I can say to describe the truth of it all is that I have experienced the profound reality of love. Through birthing a child who could not survive his circumstances, then letting go of his physical body and following his miracles, I have gained true consciousness. I see clearly for the first time in my life and have been reborn, as I was always meant to be.
I am beyond fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing community where adults and children all hold space for my husband and me to heal. My role as Joe’s mom on earth did not end when I left Children’s on the final day of his life—it only shifted. Now, I believe it is my duty to continue being his mom by living his message and spreading his light.
My husband and I have two mantras, which began in Joe’s hospital room as we left him in his heroic care team’s hands each night. These mantras are “Joe on” and “find the Joe in it”—they remind us that we must carry on fearlessly, we must choose to notice beauty in our everyday circumstances, we must love each other with intention and urgency. We spread this message by wearing light blue braided bracelets, and we celebrate each and every Sunday as Joe’s Day, illuminating the “Joe moments” that arise as we continue our lives as his parents.
I often share these moments on my Instagram account, @fireworksandfireflies. We model for everyone around us how we intentionally live in his light. I am eternally grateful to my Joseph for choosing me to walk this path with him. I am certainly in uncharted territory, but somehow I know exactly what I need to do. My baby is with me and we are working together now. What a beautiful gift.
My college synchronized swimming coach said to me recently, “You never know how amazing you can be until you have to be.” The idea resonated with me because it is not only true for me and my situation, but also for so many people walking so many treacherous paths.
My heart goes out to any mom whose mind, heart, and spirit ever succumb to fear, guilt, and doubt. I’m here to tell every parent, but specifically the mothers, that you are enough. You are exactly what you need to be for your children. They chose you because you have the perfect medicine their souls need.
The truth is that love makes you enough. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let go of the lies that don’t serve you. Find joy, find beauty, find strength, find Joe within you, within your children, within your family, within your universe. You can do it, and you’re not alone.
Joe on, mamas.
Aubrey Wallen lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her passion is helping children and families understand each other by teaching in the lower elementary classroom at the Xavier University Montessori Lab School and by helping parents create developmentally appropriate home environments for their young children. She comes home to her husband, Chris, and together they choose to be the example of living by the love and light their baby Joe brought into the world.