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Zen and the Art of Motherhood

"Let's make a little pink birthday cake," my 3-year-old son suggests.

"Henry," I sigh, "we made a little pink birthday cake yesterday. And we made a little pink birthday cake the day before that. Let's do something different today."

"Let's make a little pink birthday cake again," he says brightly, just like a Teletubby.

Henry's favorite book right now features a little girl whose dolls are having a party. On the dollhouse kitchen table is a little pink birthday cake. Henry loves the picture of that miniature cake. He loves it so much that every afternoon he wants to mess up my whole kitchen for the sake of a single cupcake-size confection frosted in a hideous shade of pink. So I pull out the eggs and the food coloring that I know Henry will drip all over the counter. I pull out the sugar that he'll scatter across the floor, and the flour that will somehow sift its way into every cranny of the kitchen. I'll spend 20 minutes helping him make another little pink birthday cake, and then I'll spend an hour cleaning up. I'll do it because it makes me happy to make him so happy.

But I confess, I'm not a person who is normally made happy by either mess or repetition. I like order, and I like progress, and before I became a mother, I thrived during the selfish, glorious years I spent entirely in the professional world. I actually loved the to-do lists I made every morning at work, loved the confident flourish in my wrist as I put those little check marks beside each task. Finish grading papers: check. Write lesson plan: check.

I wasn't prepared to discover how thoroughly motherhood interrupted my own personal space-time continuum. When you first become a mother, time slows down, or disappears entirely. The newborn wails, and you stumble one more time to the bassinet, stick a nipple in the howling mouth, burp him, wipe his bottom, fasten on a clean diaper, pace and pace and pace while he cries. Night after night you do it. The only variation is that sometimes you cry too.

It doesn't get a lot better with toddlers. Even though they can talk  -- sort of  -- and engage in adorable games of make-believe, they love rituals. "Wouldn't you like to try pimiento cheese today, honey?" you ask, and the answer is no, no, and ever no.

So you make one more PB&J, pour one more cup of milk, peel one more banana. It's hard to escape the sense that where life with kids is concerned, time isn't progressing; it's standing still.

The standard solution is to recognize that in parenthood, you just have to take the bad with the good. My first child, Sam, loved Green Eggs and Ham so much when he was 3 that once, in desperation, I hid the book in the laundry basket. Now my own Sam-I-Am is in the second grade and terribly embarrassed if I call him by his Dr. Seuss nickname. And I'm a little more patient with his younger brothers because I know how brief these days really are: I know if I want the sweet, sweet, snuggle-up cuddling of story hour, I have to grit my teeth through the story.

This isn't a bad strategy for surviving the boredom that's often inherent in parenthood. But I'm beginning to wonder if there's actually a better answer. If the best modern idea is to accept the bad with the good, the best ancient one is more encompassing: There's no bad and there's no good; there's only life. In this view, all that's required for success is wholehearted participation in the gorgeous natural rhythms  -- in birth and growth and passing, in the ebb and flow of time.

This is something different from accepting the bad with the good of parenthood. Accepting the bad with the good is changing the dirty diaper with a certain shrugged acceptance: "Oh, well, another mess to clean up." It's saying cheerfully to the baby, "All sweet and clean again!" and giving him a kiss in celebration.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. Most of the time it's the best I can do myself. But if I take a deep breath, if I try for a moment to be still, to be patient, to cease being in such a hurry, the repetitions of motherhood can begin to seem like acts of meditation, a quiet kind of letting go. Like my children, I exist in only that one instant, completely outside of time. Accepting the Zen of motherhood is changing the dirty diaper and actually reveling in the act itself, not in its resolution. It's marveling at the slow and miraculous way the perfect skin emerges under your own ministering hands, at the bare feet waving around so happily in the air, and at the way the busy baby corkscrews, laughing, away from his mother and has to be trapped and turned, trapped and turned, again and again, before the diaper game ends with the baby all sweet and clean once more.

My own life, not to mention my very self, is not set up to experience such moments of transcendence with any frequency. When you're a person who's spent hundreds of dollars at Target on nothing more than plastic storage baskets and bins for toys, it's not easy to give up modern notions of progress and order.

Such moments of ancient wisdom do come, though, and when they do, they're pure delight. They hint at what's possible. They remind me to let go of what I've planned, and luxuriate instead in what I have.

Margaret Renkl is a former teacher.