There are mornings in which words are too much; the previous night’s tension has not yet left my jaw, and the stream of questions and entreats–rapid-fired from little mouths which don’t yet require caffeine–proves too much for my overwrought mind. Like the aspens which bend before my window in pre-dawn wind, I too have spent a night being battered: by images, by fragments of what I said and she said; by imaginings and second thoughts about the shape of a scraggly juniper which, the day before, met its match in a pair of long, sharp shears. It can be anything, these ruminations that keep me up at night.
And then there are the voices of my day, those which emanate unrehearsed, live from the moment as it uncoils. I want to savor these young voices, to delight in staccato speech and the sputtering of words just learned. But at times, my need for stillness and silence prevents me from such revelry. At times, I seek only to tame the wild moment, because the unpredictability of parenting—which in my mind leans toward chaos—can prove too much for my pattern-seeking nature.
I’ve written often about my difficulty with motherhood (here, here and here, for example). And each time I do so, I worry about how my daughters will respond when they, one day, read the ancient musings of their mother. Will they confuse my feelings about the role of motherhood with my feelings about them? Will they believe, if I acknowledge frustration with the fact that motherhood tends to be isolating and repetitious for me, that I love them less? Or that they are responsible for my feelings?
The concept of modern motherhood is nothing if not a contradiction: we are told that we’re responsible for everything our child does, but then that we’ve overstepped our bounds and become too controlling; we are told to keep all potentially harmful substances—from pesticides to plastics–away from our children, but then told we should give our kids freedom and room to roam; we are taught to attend to their emotional, social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs, but then written off as helicopter parents, unable to separate from the children we’ve inadvertently smothered. (But don’t dare back too far away from your precious and needy children, lest you want to be called selfish–perhaps the biggest sin in motherhood.)
This confusion about the optimal distance between mother and child boils down to this: Are mothers supposed to have their own lives and experiences, independent from those of their children? Most of us would answer a resounding “yes.” Yet it’s likely we still fear that our distance may harm our children, because it implies that our availability will be limited. (If you disagree, consider the so-called Mommy wars, and the heated debate about whether the children of working mothers are damaged by being in daycare; this remains an emotionally loaded and highly provocative issue.)
Another incarnation of this question is whether mothers are entitled to have—and give voice to—their negative experiences with motherhood. Publicly acknowledging such sentiments may feel taboo, as though a sacred institutional pact has been breached by a disloyal member.
Then there is the idea that our children will be harmed if we articulate the challenges of motherhood or show them that we’re struggling. It is true that a parent’s emotional outpouring can be distressing or even damaging for a child, particularly if it is accompanied by abusive behavior, or if it is ongoing and representative of mental illness. And children shouldn’t be asked to provide counsel or emotional support to parents struggling with their own issues. But I suspect that our fear of acknowledging maternal dissatisfaction derives not just from our desire to protect children, but from the age-old belief that women are not full-fledged subjects in their own lives, entitled to their own experiences and reactions, but rather baby-making machines.
On days in which parenting takes the wind from my sails, I think of the ballerina in my daughter’s musical jewelry box. Each time the box is opened, I’m surprised to see her spring to life; I assume that she’s been permanently destroyed, due to rough treatment from dirt-encrusted hands and a sharp hinge which comes dangerously close to decapitating her. But there she is, rising again when the box is next opened, turning steadily as ever to the tune of “It’s a Small World.”
Most mothers can likely relate to this tenacious plastic doll: we endure and persevere, and sometimes surprise ourselves with our own resiliency. But, unlike the doll, we need to vent and spill and gripe about our lives, especially on days when our own spring fails–days when we’re not sure we’re cut out for this thing called motherhood. In the end, there is no template, no right way to be a mom. And at times, we all feel dissatisfaction and despair. But ideally we can surround ourselves not just with children and their buckets of toys and clothes and carriers, but with other mothers who speak their truth and say, “I hear you” when we speak ours.
How about you–do you tell others if you’re struggling? And do you think mothers are encouraged to speak of their dissatisfaction with the role?
Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, via Flickr’s Creative Commons License.