The meaning of island motherhood

Raising children on an island has its challenges, however, for San Juan Islanders Lisa Lawrence and her daughters Natalia and Mara, any complaints are heavily outweighed by the natural beauty, supportive community and their family’s ancestral connections.

“My mom’s family has lived here for hundreds of years and there are old homesteads and gravestones of our ancestors buried on Waldron, Spieden, Stuart, and San Juan,” Mara said. “Having such a deep connection to this land and sea feels powerful and gives me a sense of deep belonging; knowing so many generations have fished these waters, farmed this soil, and raised their babies playing in these woods.”

The island childhood experience is incredibly unique. Mara loved growing up on San Juan, she said, on their family farm, riding her horse through the woods and playing on the water. Mara wanted her daughter Otana to have similar experiences. “I wanted [to raise her on San Juan Island] because I wanted her to have the same connection to nature, amazing childhood friends with grandparents and island elders to admire and protect her during her teenage years,” Mara said.

Natalia also loves knowing she is raising her babies in the same area she grew up. “Being generationally tied to the place we live, centuries-long on this very island and islands, makes me feel pride and magic that I get to share with my kids,” she said. “I love to tell them that their ancestors also lived here.”

Lisa also pointed out how the natural geography of an island home impacts one’s viewpoints.

“Living on an island gives one a unique perspective. Growing up here means having a relationship with the sea as well as land. One must cross water to come and go. When we went to America (what we called the mainland) – the girls would always ask ‘what island is this?’” Lisa said.

Natalia’s children have also inquired as to the name of the mainlands island. “My kids have all asked what island we are on when we make it to Anacortes, and I tell them this is Fidalgo Island. I don’t want to explain that not everywhere is islands. I sort of like the fable that the whole world is really just little islands,” Natalia said.

The close proximity of beaches has always been a solace for Lisa. “My mother [Betty Nash] often took her little ones to the beach which served as a form of therapy,” she said. “There was room for everybody and all emotions. We could sing out loud and out of tune, cry, laugh too loud, and talk to ourselves – all appropriate. We skipped rocks, built forts, and hunted treasure, all while soaking in the beauty of this place. My mom was laid back and nonjudgmental, comfortable in her own skin, and a kind, loving mother. This became and still is a favorite thing to do.”

Following in her mother and grandmother’s steps, Natalia also commented on the therapeutic value of a beach walk.

“Taking a walk on South Beach and looking for agates should be prescribed for an array of heartache,” she said.

The water-land connection brings islanders close to both marine and terrestrial wildlife, as one of Lisa’s favorite motherhood stories illustrates. “We were fishing off the north side of Spieden Island where my native great-great-great grandmothers once lived,” Lisa said, “Natalia was about four years old. It was calm, the engine was off, we had a moment of pause. About five porpoises swam up very close to the boat and began circling us. Natalia stood on the side of the boat peering into the water and as they passed her, they nearly stopped to stare at her, their inquisitive eye focused right on her. I’ll never forget it. They appeared to be marveling at our baby just as I often marvel at other species’ young ones.”

Natalia noted that motherhood remains the most universal language. “Everywhere people and animals have babies, we all share that. Crossing species, culture, politics, morality, and economics, it is what we do. I love knowing that we all have birth stories, if you can’t share about or relate about other things, there is always this,” she said.

When asked what surprised them about motherhood, each of the women answered that it was the immediate intense love for their children.

“I wasn’t the babysitting type as a girl. Horses were my passion and babies just didn’t interest me,” Lisa said. “But when I held Natalia and Mara in my arms for the first time a spell was cast and being a mother became the most important and rewarding part of life from then on. A fierceness was born within when I became a mother.” Lisa continued, saying that she feels fortunate her daughters are healthy, smart, and strong.“It’s made mothering fun, introspective, challenging, educational, and very rewarding. I also have an amazing husband, Jim. He is a natural-born nurturer and together we figured it out. Now I get to be a grandmother and that is the icing on the cake,” she said.

Mara also marveled at the power of a mother’s love. “I knew being a mother would be great and I’d love my baby like crazy. I was surprised at how much I love it and how crazy, wild, heart-exploding I feel when my daughter says and does certain things.” She added that she did not fully realize how demanding motherhood would be and how challenging it is to run a farm and still be the kind of mother she wants to be.

Natalia added that what surprised her after becoming a mother was the sudden realization she would never not be a mom again. “It sounds silly maybe, but it’s not just a job, it completely changes your identity. There is no such thing as clocking in and out. Every second and every cell changes into caring for and thinking about your babies.”

Natalia said she also realized how kids can be so different from their parents and honoring those differences is important. Part of what has kept the Lawrence family close, according to Natalia is accepting who each other is.

“We are really blessed in our reverence and love for one another. I hold my family high on a pedestal and they are all worthy of it. A lot of it was the way we were raised, close and with really strong values,” she said.

Growing up on a farm, also brought the family together. “It taught me the closeness of life and death and vitality and brought them close to each other. We worked really hard, and also nurtured each other well. We all share a deep respect for nature that is probably our own version of religion.”

Today, as neighbors, the families walk to each other’s houses, while their kids race in between. “We help and love each other well; this is all passed down for sure. I think my grandma Betty was exceptional at doing this. I am grateful my mom does too,” Natalia said.

When asked if she had any advice for mothers, Mara replied that as a new mother herself, she did not. However, she said, with all the challenges of motherhood all moms need to hear they are doing a good job and should be easier on themselves. “It seems our current world where many moms work, keep home, have less childcare/support and so much social media influence showing us the picture-perfect life and less of the real, messy nature of things, it is hard and unrealistic to hold yourself to that standard while balancing all of life’s demands,” Mara said. “We’re all imperfect and I think we all want to be the best mother we can be, but at the end of the day, we’re just human. “

Allowing children to see that humanity and admitting mistakes are lessons important as well, added.

As a mother of young kids herself, Natalia said the best advice she has is not advice but solidarity. “It is as hard as it feels and simultaneously as miraculous as it feels too. The whiplash and awareness of both feelings all the time is somehow the best lesson of it all,” she said.

“Teach tolerance, it’s so important in these times to respect others, to be kind,” Lisa said. She also encouraged moms to truly be present with their kids. “Take time to just sit and watch your children when they’re little. They grow up so fast.”