In the very early weeks of motherhood, when I flipped through the photos of my hugely pregnant self, I didn’t recognize that woman. That wasn’t me! Certainly her body was different, being an additional fifty pounds (yes, fifty. 5.0.) pounds heavier – much of which was “water weight,” hah! But what was most alien was the expression on her face. She looked happy, completely and comfortably certain that she had everything under control.
This despite plenty of contrary evidence. I’d suffered three miscarriages, and subsequent diagnosis and treatment of “luteal phase defect.” At 28 weeks, early labor arrived, requiring hospitalization and two weeks of bed rest.
Nonetheless, for whatever reason – mother’s intuition? sixth sense? – I’d remained certain this pregnancy would result in a healthy birth. I was proven right when son #1 arrived right on time, all fingers and toes present and in the right spots. As my midwife stitched me up, she casually joked “now the hard work begins.” I needed a fair number of stitches. I’ll spare you the labor story, but it was, as so many of them are, a lesson in pain, humility, faith and miracles. There would be nothing harder than what my body had just endured. I thought my midwife was making a bad joke.
My midwife was not making a bad joke.
Unfortunately, I did not recognize this due to my complete and utter immaturity and egoism. I flat-out disbelieved what others told me about parenting. Those who said it was impossible to get out the door with a baby in under an hour? They had no idea how to organize, that was all! Haggard mothers who claimed no more than an hour’s sleep per night, for six weeks? Surely their parenting partners weren’t as good as mine! Parents who lamented that showering was nigh unto impossible? Please. It only takes ten minutes, how hard can that be? [Best book on this: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.]
Everyone who’s had a child, lived with a child, interacted with a child: join me in laughing heartily at my younger self. Because it is exactly that hard and frankly, the physical demands of childbirth and infant-baby-toddler childcare melt to nothingness relative to the labor of explaining injustice, cruelty, famine, death, loss and heartbreak as your child grows up.
I’m a fast learner and it only took me, oh, about two years, to discover that everything everyone had told me was true.
I’ve had now fourteen years to practice hanging onto the person I am regardless of being a mother. I’ve been practicing a lot, first, because my kids won’t be at home forever and I’m a big believer in steady maintenance: if we don’t tend to things, they fall apart. True of physical structures, true of our bodies, true of our souls, true of our hearts and minds.
Second, because when I don’t hang on to the now-wiser remnant of that young, water-weighted, utterly certain young pregnant woman, I’m lost. The days when I only tend to others from the moment my slippered feet shuffle into the bathroom ‘til they plod upstairs at day’s end are days that deplete me, gobble my joy, my patience, my sense of humor. I am not satisfied by days with nothing but carpooling, volunteering, shopping, paying bills, chauffering kids to cello, soccer, cub scouts, cleaning up the cat puke, folding laundry, preparing some semblance of an edible meal, and walking the stir-crazy dog.
Don’t misunderstand: I enjoy each of those things for its own unique pleasures (eavesdropping during carpool, chatting while volunteering, finding a yummy new ice cream, watching my kids enjoy sports and music, folding sheets hung in a sunny breeze, savoring the results of my kitchen labors, the obvious delight of the dog in the cool evening air).
It’s the cumulative effect of the duties layered with the simple fact that I freak out in a cluttered and/or dirty environment that does me in. The swirl of life with three other people in a smallish house distracts and distresses me on the bad days, and I dive into fixing all the details and then I look up and … I’m exhausted and find the muse is already snoring and I am faced with a metaphorical and often literal blank page and a serious case of the what-the-hell-do-I-have-to-say-anyway-and-even-if-I-figured-it-out-why–bother-Shakespeare-said-it-better-four-hundred-years-ago-anyway-quit-whining-your-life-is-amazing-look-at-the-people-starving-in-Somalia.
And then I compare myself to other parents who don’t, apparently, shove their kids out the door with breakfast in a “to go” bowl, admonishing them to “Hurry up! Because if mommy doesn’t write today her head will explode!” Do they?
In my clearer moments I realize 1. Maybe their heads don’t explode for the same reasons mine does. 2. Maybe their heads don’t explode at all! 3. Maybe my hard-wiring is as defective as my uterus was and I should still be on the antidepressants.
And perhaps if the pills’ effectiveness hadn’t waned and if writing didn’t wax a big golden moon that illuminates my life, I would be. But pen on paper is how I find out who I am, and why I am, at least for a moment. It helps me figure stuff out and then it helps me figure out how to deal with it.
If we’re on the Titanic, and we know we’re going sinking and we also happen to be in first class, why not drink the champagne? What are we saving it for? What’s the point in self-inflicted, unnecessary miserliness with our souls? *
While the confident, certain young woman I was before motherhood’s cloak wrapped me up was foolish and arrogant, she was also beaming from ear to ear, full of life and stories yet untold. On the other side, here with the doubt, exhaustion, heartbreak, wisdom, and humility of wearing that cloak , I need her confidence, her certainty, her fecundity, because “… it hurts when buds burst. There is pain when something grows.”
Guess who? Not Shakespeare. Karin Boye.
Guess what? If I can hang onto her, my arrogant self will suppress my Shakespeare inferiority complex, guide me to the table, set me down and put me to scribbling.
She knows we need to drink whatever champagne we are lucky enough to find.
* Credit for the Titanic metaphor goes to Dr. John Cairns
beautiful work Les
Your blog posts are so refreshingly honest. Thank you for that. Makes me feel just that much closer to being normal.
Beautiful, Les. I recently went through a spell of depression. I didn’t use writing as a rope out or to help me understand, but will keep it in mind. It felt reassuring to know you have this talent to help you when a friend might not be immediately there to put their arms around you. . . or even if they are. You have my admiration. 🙂 Xx -m
Shakespeare never went through labor nor the resulting joy and pain.
Even my children recognize when I need to paint-often before I do. I have always wished that the words in my head would come out in text as beautifully as yours. Thanks for the wonderful post. (When is your book coming out? 🙂 )
Wonderful, Lesley. The life balance struggles you describe will be familiar to most artists, especially (I would guess) the ones who are parents. I loved Operating Instructions! Have you read her Bird by Bird, by any chance? I found that book helpful on a number of levels. I have far fewer responsibilities than you do, but can still relate to the idea that it’s somehow indulgent of me to NEED time to myself, for my creativity/art/work. The Shakespeare-to-Somalia line made me laugh out loud in recognition. Sadly I think my mom has let that thinking stop her writing completely. (Her version is ‘all the good books have been written’.) Nothing any of us say has made a difference so far. Glad you’re making time for your writing. I look forward to more.
Thanks to all for such kind words. I continue to be surprised by the response to my posts — they feel sort of pedestrian to me and to “hear” the resonances they strike in others provides an affirmation of shared, well, humanity I guess, not to be all snooty-patooty or self-aggrandaizing about it … certainly a far cry from my younger self, who pounded her stories out on her typewriter and swore she would never, ever, ever turn to computers.
@ Erica: there is no normal. Only people we don’t very well 🙂
@ Robi: I’d love to hear your thoughts about how writing and painting are different and the same. As fall again begins its transformation of our woods, I’ve been pondering what innate skill I missed when it came to the visual art gene ‘cuz the colors make me want to SHOW them, and words fall short of that, IMO.
@ Patrick: thing I find most interesting is when I hear about folks like your mom, my response is, “No! Your story is worth telling! Do it! Go for it!” but I rarely manage to believe those words about myself. Wassup with that?! And yes, I’ve read Bird-by-Bird as well. Fantastic, agreed! Have you seen Priscilla Long’s “A Writer’s Portable Mentor”? CanNOT say enough good about that re: craft, productivity practices, etc. Need to do an entire post about it.
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