So often, we stumble into our destinies, not watching where we are going.
Motherhood is like that.
Some blithely marry and set to the project because it’s what we’re “supposed” to do next, without much thought or knowledge about the road ahead. Some are prompted by a wish to recreate a family, do it better than their own family did, get it right. Some see a baby as the ultimate pet. Some are prompted by ego to distill themselves and their loved one into what they believe will be an extension of them. Some have a notion of legacy, continuing the family name (at least dad’s and grandpa’s) into the future generations.
Some just have a little too much wine or get caught up in the moment and forget the birth control.
It doesn’t matter what you were thinking — or whether you were thinking — when you lined up for the roller coaster ride of parenting. Once the safety restraints are snapped in and locked, it matters not whether you change your mind during the clickety-clackety ascent to the top of the track. You’re in it now, it’s too late.
It’s especially bizarre for women-parents. While the culture of pregnancy is festooned with silliness, storks and pickle cravings, moodiness jokes and smock-tops that make you look like a school girl, the truth is it’s just damned weird. Imagine being a human pod in which an alien life form is growing. There is love and wonder to it, don’t be mistaken… but there is also strangeness and that same feeling you get on the roller coaster’s ascent. What have I signed myself up for? Will this be more than I bargained for? What if I’m not up to this?
And like a roller coaster, there is often vomiting involved.
So while little stranger rolls and kicks and hiccups through the months somewhere between your lungs and your bladder, and your body morphs into a waddling eggplant, you start to think about birth. All I will say on this subject was that if sex was the experience labor is, and vice versa, our species would never have made it past the first homo sapien couple.
But there we are with our babies in our arms, simultaneously beautiful and looking like angry little Winston Churchills. And here our bodies become bed, chair, and beverage dispenser, which is simultaneously bizarre and the most natural thing our waking instinct can lead us to. We read everything, ward off advice, do our best and, knowing deep down that nothing in life has prepared us for this job, cling to whatever floats in the wreckage of parenting philosophy and information. We are the blessed mother and child, the perfect mommy, icon of our culture, Donna Reed and the symbol of all that is apple pie and hope for the future — and simultaneously, are a sleep-deprived, hormone-addled, physically deflated train wreck, living in a world of leaky diapers, leaky breasts, spit up and drool, tears and coffee.
When my babies were small, I knew — and knew with a vengeance — just how everybody else was doing it wrong. Because I had the information, I was well read and enlightened and not governed by old fashioned nonsense. I was quite smug about my ability to raise children, when mine were still cooing bundles of joy (and simultaneously wailing bundles of inconsolable discontent.)
When other people’s two year olds were terrible, or three year olds discovered the word “NO” and had tantrums, I rolled my eyes privately, convinced that it was all about ineffective parenting. When kids had behavior problems or teens were rebellious, I smiled quietly knowing that my lot would be different, as gifted as I was in parenting.
Then my kids became toddlers, and big kids, and headed for their teens. Life can be incredibly humbling. Somewhere in the last decade I found myself uncharacteristically unable to give advice on the subject of parenting. While my kids were young, my poem “Sleeping With Baby” was published in Attachment Parenting, my voice was on all the mommy boards promoting breastfeeding, baby slings, tribal parenting and following primal instincts. Now, not so much. My philosophy has gone from “I have found the true way” to “Every man for himself.”
Gone along with it is the judgement, the smugness and the certainty that my children will walk in a straight line from my womb to happily ever after. Gone too, sadly, is the false confidence that let me react to other families’ dramas and disasters with “That could never happen to us.”
In its place is a feeling of sisterhood with all who mother — regardless of whether they do it my way, whether they live in an African village or a New York City high rise, whether they have given birth, or adopted, or just mothered the children they love and mentor in other ways. A lot of children lose out big in the good mommy lottery and are born to women barely able to manage their own lives, addictions, angers and empty places, much less nurture a child. Teachers, neighbors, relatives and kind strangers can parent the lost. You don’t have to be mom to mother children.
I know this because the biggest myth I lost in the process of mothering was the notion that my children were me — or were mine — or were even about me. Sometimes I marvel at how little I really know them, and their inner workings, and their growing private lives. My three children (with the same parents, same environment, same nutrition and same general experiences) are as different as the seasons, and headed toward their different destinies, their little souls and skills and quirks pre-installed. The best I can do as a mother is to house them, feed them, clothe them and try not to set up obstacles between them and who they are meant to be. The rest is – increasingly — not my job, and none of my business to decide.
Mothering is both a sacred trust and a thankless chore. It is swell to sing about motherhood in Hallmark verse and offer clicheed, beribboned images. But Aya is selling pots today at the Potter’s Guild sale in the rain, working the cashier table on the porch while trying to soothe her cranky little one to sleep. A friend whose kids have chicken pox is spending mother’s day washing bedding and cleaning up vomit. Another is at the bedside of her own dying mother, midwifing her into wherever the soul goes from here. A close friend is in her lovely, empty nursery today, aching for her baby daughter from China and cursing the government paperwork that keeps pushing the dates back, and back. All over the country moms are cleaning up the messes kids made for a gift of breakfast in bed… stepping on poky legos, doing laundry and paying bills, sometimes with their own paychecks if they are parenting solo. Somewhere moms are worrying after adult kids and their choices and marriages, health and happiness.
Me, I plan to walk past the dirty dishes and things-to-do list and go build a fire in the studio wood stove on this rainy, cold May morning. I have a pug mill full of buttery soft clay, and the thing I want most today is some guilt-free time to myself. The kids are full of secrets and I am not allowed to look behind the couch. Hubby has a menu of my favorites planned for supper, and life is good. My mom is at her mom’s (the grandma who got a speeding ticket at 90) so the afternoon is mine.
Blessings and best of luck to all the mothers out there.
Kelly Averill Savino in Ohio