Mother Love

Last week I got sick with a nasty cold, and I wanted badly to check out of my life for a few days. There were things I should have done that I didn’t do, as happens when one is sick. The hardest thing about being sick, though, for me, as a mother, is letting down my kids. I got to thinking about this after I blew up at them one evening when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself and wanting to be the one cared for instead of the one who always has to do the caring. The incident itself was unremarkable, but for days afterward, I ruminated on our relationship to each other, on the roles of mother and child.

Mothering is more difficult than I ever imagined it would be before I became a mother. The first few weeks after my son was born, I remember being in a state of shock over the fact that I could not go anywhere ever again without either taking him with me or arranging for his care while I was gone. This should have been expected, but it was something I’d never contemplated previously. I had been a singular, independent being, then suddenly I was one half of a conjoined duo. Another being was completely dependent on me for survival. Yes, sure, I had help from my husband, who is a very hands-on dad, but that didn’t change the fact that primarily it was me who had the responsibility of making sure our son’s needs were met.

It is still me, the mother, that my now teen and preteen kids depend on. Nothing is right in the world if I do not listen to their stories, if I do not help them with their school projects, if I do not counsel them on their friendships. I am expected to provide them food and remind them to eat it. I am the one they need to take them shopping when they outgrow their clothes and shoes. I am the one who calls the right doctor and gets them the right medicine and holds them close no matter how contagious they are. My husband is still the hands-on dad he’s always been, but I am always the one my kids need above all others.

I am the mother, and mothers are supposed to care for their kids before anyone else, including themselves. I know that my kids love me, but I understand also that their love is based on my satisfying the need they have for a caring mother. Last week they knew I was sick, and I know they cared that I was sick, but that didn’t stop them from needing me to care for them. When I lashed out in protest, they experienced, for a brief moment, the despair of not having a mother who cared about their needs. Shortly thereafter, I apologized to them and, within a few hours, they had recovered from their brief despair and our relationship was back to normal. That was only possible because I have proven to them repeatedly, through our daily interactions, that I do care about their needs.

This is the natural order of life. I cannot ever expect my children to reciprocate my love in the exact way that I love them. I cannot ever expect them to put my needs above their own, because to do so would be a reversal of what our relationship to each other should be. When my kids are grown and have experienced the world on their own as adults, they might understand why I would suddenly lash out at them on a day when I felt in need of care myself. They might have compassion for the inner child in me who remains needy to this day because she never received unselfish mothering way back when. But even if they do, even when they are adults themselves, I know they will still need me to care for them in the way a mother should. They will always need me to be their advocate, to be on their side, to have their backs. I cannot ever expect them not to need me this way. This is my role as mother.

I am a mother, yet I have another role, as a child, in another aspect of my life. As a child, I still need my mother, as all children do. This is how I understand why it’s okay for my own children to love me in the selfish way that they do. If I were to stop caring for their needs in favor of my own, I would create in them an aching despair. When my child needs me, no matter how small the need, that need is real and important, and it is my responsibility and obligation to respond because I am the caregiver in our relationship. I cannot turn things around and require that my children take on the responsibility of giving care to me. That is not their role. It never will be.

Having someone need me all the time as my children do is at times exhausting. Some days it’s hard not to lose hold of who I am besides being a mother. Yet, I believe that being a mother is the most important work I do. And I recognize that my mother love is also a selfish love, because my children are a dream I had for myself that I chose to make come true. I indulge my mother love by giving first to them and what’s left to myself; in doing so, I satisfy the need I have to love someone completely, without expectation. My children owe me nothing for this love I give them. Someday not too far off they will leave me behind to go out into the world, and this, too, is the natural order of life.

 

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #7 of 52. 

 

No Time to Waste on Haste

I find it difficult to give up on anything I’ve written. I don’t like the feeling of putting time and effort into a piece only to see it fail, so I tend to stick with crappy older work too long.

I’m reminded of college, the first time, right after high school. Before I got there, I’d decided to major in computer science, but before I finished, I knew I’d made the wrong choice. I didn’t stop, though. I didn’t change my major. I felt too invested in it, in terms of both time and money, to start all over. I was impatient to begin my adult life. Never mind that I’d been an adult already, working a full time job, for several years. I’d assumed the identity of computer-science-major-who-will-graduate-and-get-a-high-paying-job-with-a-guaranteed-pension-and-medical-insurance. Not because I cared very much about computer science and not because I couldn’t make a life working the job I already had. I built my identity around what I thought I was supposed to want and do as a high school honor student whose parents preached stability. To not finish college, or even to prolong my time there by changing my major, would be to fail, in my mind. I was determined to finish what I’d started, and I felt I was running against the clock of my life.

What followed was nearly a decade of heartache. I graduated and I got that so-called great job, but the longer I had it, the more miserable I became. By not giving up on a poorly chosen college major, I’d given up on myself.

Why was it easier for me to keep following a path I sensed was leading me in the wrong direction than it was to stop, reconsider, and redirect myself? When I think back on this time in my life, I must admit that I enjoyed being recognized as an achiever, as someone who could succeed. Becoming a college graduate meant earning respect. Landing a good job led to more respect and recognition. Advancing in that job—earning promotions, salary increases, greater responsibility—meant I would accumulate recognition and respect, from family members, from friends, from peers.

I had a deep need to be valued, and that need persists today. I know that it comes from feeling unvalued as I was growing up. I always made good grades and was well-behaved in school, and this was the only aspect of who I was that I ever felt recognized for as a child. Nothing else about me ever seemed to be very important, least of all what I would have said were my passions. I suppose, then, that I internalized this type of achievement as a way to earn love. Although love isn’t how I’d currently characterize the attention I received for being a good student.

The need to feel valued continues to manifest itself in how I’ve approached my writing life, particularly over the past year. After I finished drafting the memoir I’d wanted to write since my early thirties, I felt overcome by an impatience to publish something, anything. I felt a great need to taste again that respect and recognition that comes from succeeding. So I committed myself to submitting whenever and wherever I could. But, under pressure, I struggled to create new work that had any substance. I pulled out pieces I’d written one, two, even three or more years before, revised and reworked them here and there, and sent them off. Truth is, I should have never let them sit so long in the first place. I should have been submitting regularly all along. But the truth also is that I’m a different writer now than I was when those pieces were composed, and also, most of that work probably is better off staying on my hard drive. Just as when I was younger, it’s difficult for me to face the fact that sometimes putting in time and effort (and money) does not lead to either immediate or soul-affirming success. Sometimes all that work is just the smoothing out that must happen before a desirable path can be built.

This need to feel valued is, in its essence, a need to belong. Sometimes the desire to belong can be so strong, we can lose ourselves in activities or groups that are actually quite a poor fit. We confuse belonging with going along.

I’ve done the poor fit thing so often in my life, by now I should be able to sense it the way my dog knows a rabbit is in the yard before it can be seen. Yet, I still too easily aim in the wrong direction. My journey toward authenticity in the type of work I do began with that realization way back in college that I was on the wrong path, but my progress since then has been painfully slow and circular. I repeat mistakes. I correct again, and again. Being able to even think of myself as a writer, to even say those words out loud—I am a writer—is progress I’ve had to fight for. It’s so deeply ingrained in me to not trust what I truly want.

The challenge I face now is determining what kind of writer I am, aside from the usual discussion of genre. What does publishing mean to me? What does compensation mean to me? What is my purpose for writing at all? Last year I submitted a lot, and my work was rejected a lot. But I didn’t write a lot, and what I did write fell flat. I spent a great deal of time trying to get my work out into the world, unsuccessfully. And what I’ve learned from this is that the act of writing itself is more important to me than the pursuit of publication. Because I’ve missed writing. A lot. I’ve missed the fun of trying new things in my writing, of trying to write a thing because I feel compelled to write it, without worrying about how or when or if it might be published. And I’ve learned that I probably need to just write whatever it is I want to write and then send it out right away, before I think or worry too much, before I have a chance to become afraid. And then I should write again. I’ve learned that I care about the quality of my writing more than about earning money from it, which is to say I want to be the kind of writer who might one day be paid for what she writes rather than the kind who writes to be paid. The respect I need to earn is my own.

I realize that I began to want a type of writing life that is not the best fit for me, because of the deep need I still have to feel recognized and valued, to belong. I am never going to be that writer who endlessly pitches ideas and dashes off articles and lives off her freelance income. I am never going to be that writer who earns an MFA and teaches writing at a university and lectures at all the best conferences. I am never going to be that writer who churns out six novels a year and formats them all herself for e-readers and treats her book publishing like a business. I’m still not sure where in the literary world I will end up, but I have to believe there is a place for the kind of writer I want to be. Maybe writing will be less a business or career for me than a lifestyle. Maybe it will simply be how I spend my days.

I’ve been impatient with my work in part because of how very long I’ve been on this journey of mine. I always feel that pressure of running against my own clock. Fifty is looming on my horizon, but I realize now that I’ve been impatient in the wrong way. I don’t have time to waste on anything that isn’t the right fit. I’ve tried to make my old work, perhaps, into more than it truly is when, really, I should think of it all as necessary practice, what I had to do to get to where I want to go, just as every step of this journey has been. There’s no way to compress time, we can only make good use of what we’re given. Forward is the best direction to go.

 

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #6 of 52. 

 

 

Combating Chaos

Too much is happening too quickly, and every day I feel sucked into the chaos. This is a bad time to be a worrier.

On Friday evening into Saturday as the effects of the new president’s travel ban became apparent, I could not force myself away from the news reports. I could not escape the sense that I was witnessing all that I so loved about my country slipping away. The laws we enacted to protect the vulnerable are proving to be much more tenuous than we assumed they’d be. It’s been too easy these first two weeks for the new administration to annihilate laws. And there seems to be no one with any power willing to be a hero of the people.

By the end of the day on Saturday, my joints ached and my chest felt tight. All I wanted to do was cover myself with a blanket, have a stiff drink, and detach. And I’m not an immigrant or a refugee. My skin color is the same as that of the men who penned our Constitution. I will not be personally violated by the ban or the wall. But I am a citizen of this country, and I care.

I am a person who often feels too much. When I read about people being put on planes and sent back to dangerous places where they have no home or resources, I cannot be neutral. When I read about children unable to be united with their parents, I am reading as a mother, and I know the pain I would feel if I was helpless to keep my children out of danger. I don’t understand how anyone hearing these stories cannot feel this pain, how anyone can turn their back while people are being treated this way.

Being a person who feels too much makes it difficult to deal with chaos. I’m thrown off kilter. I forget to do everyday things that need doing. I realize also that I stoke the chaos by giving into it, by allowing it to consume me. I know I must become more disciplined at tuning it out, at least for long enough that I can maintain my equilibrium. I must find joy in each day despite all the sadness in the world around me.

It’s too easy to ignore my own goals when it feels as if the whole world is going to hell. It’s too easy to believe that the work I want to do will not be enough. It’s too easy to believe I should be doing something else, something more, especially when things are changing so fast. Writing takes thought and patience. Fast isn’t usually how the type of writing I want to do happens. I worry that by the time an idea is fleshed out, the pivotal cultural or political moment that inspired it will have passed.

In a blog post earlier this week, Dani Shapiro wrestled with similar doubts and concluded, “But there is another kind of protest, another way of refusing to succumb to despair. And so we sit down to write.” It is helpful for me to hear this from someone I respect as a writer.

We each must consider how we can best use our own talents and interests to cope with the chaos and to contribute to the cause of resisting the destruction of what we most value. There is a role for each of us in preserving our freedoms.

Because so much I care about is presently under attack, I must decide how I will prioritize my own fight. I ache for those being turned away by this administration. I fear we will become embroiled in another world war. I’m afraid for friends and family who are gay or Jewish or Latino or from any place in the world besides western Europe. I worry that my daughter and I will be marginalized because we are female, that my entire family will be marginalized because we don’t identify as Christian. I’m afraid that public education will no longer be available for my children. I don’t know how we’ll get health insurance next year, or if we’ll be able to afford it, or what it will cover. I fear that our National Parks, our waterways, our atmosphere will be irreparably damaged. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to publicly express any of these fears without the threat of punishment.

I cannot possibly focus on every one of these issues with the same intensity. None of us can. We would burn ourselves out. I must choose a path of resistance that will make the best use of my expertise, my interests, and my time, while allowing me space to recharge enough to keep going.

I cannot allow resistance to become all that I am. I must spend time disconnected from all the bad news, focused instead on what is still good in this world. On Wednesday, Rachel Maddow reported that the tea party movement has never had as much support as the protest movement that is going on right now. There is love, and there is hope.

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #5 of 52. 

Anatomy of Power

Women whom I’m friends with on Facebook post photos of other women dressed in vagina costumes at the Women’s March.

So embarrasing!

A disgrace!

How to explain this to their daughters?

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My girl only recently learned how babies are conceived. We call our body parts by their anatomical names—breasts, uterus, vagina. We avoid shy slang.

My girl does not like anyone to use vulgar words. She calls them bad words, but I correct her. There are no bad words, because a word itself does not have any moral value. Every word we invent serves a purpose. Sometimes our purpose is to hurt other people, and that’s when a word becomes a thing we shouldn’t say.

My girl did not know the word pussy as anything other than a cat until I had to explain what a then-candidate for president meant when he said that, if he wanted to, he could grab women by their pussies.

* * *

Photos of women dressed in vagina costumes at the Women’s March make me feel timid. A taboo has been broken. Some parts of a woman’s body, I have been taught, should always be covered. Breasts. Buttocks. Vagina. To expose these to view is to incite sexual urges in men.

Let’s be frank, this is what we’ve been taught, that we as girls, as women, must always be careful not to do anything that might cause a man to feel sexual desire. We girls, we women, have been taught to be responsible for men’s reactions, as if they are not capable of controlling their own behavior. We have been trained to be culpable. Continue reading “Anatomy of Power”

In the Gooey Center

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the title of this blog, Between. How apt this word is to describe what’s missing in most discussions about anything of relevance. How appropriate this word is to explain what I’m most interested in exploring through my writing.

I’ve been noticing how often my own views fall somewhere in the middle territory between the popularly accepted “pro” and “con” positions on an issue. This can be an uncomfortable place to sit, with strong forces pulling this way and that. We’re all supposed to be either for or against a thing. Anyone who claims to see both sides or tries to incorporate some of the good from each side in their position is said to be weak, wishy-washy, copping out, afraid to take a stand. But I think the space between is where most of us actually live.

The minute someone lays out a platform, someone else will find a point on which they disagree. The problem is the idea of absolutes, of purity in positions. Between the absolutes at each end of the spectrum lie an infinite number of fractional positions. Only the most extreme among us strictly adhere to the absolutes. I don’t need to work a full-time job to be a feminist. I don’t need to be anti-abortion to be pro-life. I don’t need to register as a Democrat to defend progressive ideals. I don’t need to be a Republican to care about balanced budgets.

Our common ground can be found in the gooey center. Though each of us is stuffed with contradictions, out in the world we are categorized, placed into one box or another, added to this or that list. My views seem extreme to some, mundane to others. But I bet I could find something in common with every person I bump up against. Maybe it would be only one thing, but that one thing could help us both recognize the humanity in each other. If you see me as a liberal and I see you as a conservative, but we each care about, say, preserving Medicare, why can we not come together to figure out a way to make it work? Continue reading “In the Gooey Center”