Goin' on a bear hunt (clap, clap, clap, clap)
I'm not afraid (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Comin' to a wheat field (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Can't go around it (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Gotta go through it (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Swish swish swish swish swish swish
Having reached the other side of the River Styx, at least for now, it is easy to say that what one goes through as a new mother is temporary but unavoidable. I knew this in the thick of things, too - but I railed against the unfairness of it. There was simply no way around the mental instability, broken sleep, physical exhaustion, and emotional desert of caring for two tiny children. It made me weak and classically female in a way I couldn't accept. I wanted to blame someone for what was causing me to suffer. Capitalism! The Patriarchy! My mother! There had to be a way out. But it was - and is - just what it is. Motherhood. On the side of Life, I can say this without bitterness. On the side of Death, I said it with a wail: "My children are killing me!"
One way to not let my children kill me was to pursue life outside the family. This required some sacrifice from them (if spending time away from their screaming, withdrawn mother was really a sacrifice). One evening a week, I led a suport group for new parents. Now, before you laugh at this image of the blind leading the the blind, consider this: the helping professions are lousy with depressives and addicts. Everyone knows the joke that not a few crazy people train as psychotherapists, recovered cokeheads become addiction counselors, and the ranks of teachers are packed with the suffering and the wounded. I fit right in. Being fresh off the battlefield, I wanted these sleep-deprived, paralyzed-by-worry parents to know that I understood them. That they were not alone. That somehow I could help them avoid the crazy-making mental ruts I had gotten into as a new parent.
They seemd to resent my presumption. I had forgotten that new parents tend to think their experience is unique. I had forgotten the grand fantasies they/we have that we will triumph where others have failed. That with our education, coolness, professional life, insight, whatever, we will Do This Right. And I had forgotten that I didn't get out of my rut because someone gave me the right advice.
I noticed, after a few more meetings, that when I released my agenda, shut up, and allowed them to share their failings and misgivings with each other (hesitantly, at first: no one wants to be outed as a substandard parent), they softened and began to lean on one another. I saw that emotional quagmire is part of many parents' experience, and there just ain't no way around it. Squish squish squish squish.
Now I'm leading a second group. These mothers are showing me the same thing: Okay, no one is ever going to solve this basic problem of the impossibility of being a mother. Not the right book, not the right exercise regimen, not even the most stellar partner. So how are we going to have reasonable lives? One of the moms said, "You have to do what makes you least crazy." How did she get so smart so fast?
Last night, my friend Vicki, who has a 4-year-old and a newborn, listened to me yak about my latest career idea, and then sighed. "I look forward to being in that position again to even think about those things," she said. I was blown away by her wisdom and the gentleness with which she treated herself in that comment. I didn't have that kind of intelligence or peace when I was still nursing my second child. I was angry as hell and constantly battering myself for not having a job (even though I didn't really want one).
"There's time in the universe for everything I want to do," she continued, sipping a nonalcoholic, lactose-free beverage in the bar at Atlas Foods. "If I can't do something now, I just put it back out there and have faith that I'll come back to it."
But I'll have a champagne cocktail with that thought.