Outside of Motherhood
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
*Spoiler alert! If you have not seen Manchester by the Sea and are planning to, be warned. I have written about it briefly below and it reveals something central to the storyline.
I have been trying to run away from it, this motherhood thing. Not in a literal sense. Geez. What kind of a mother do you think I am? I don’t believe I would ever actually leave my children. But that’s not to say I love every minute of it. I don’t.
I guess that's the kind of mother I am.
Immediately I think of the movie “Manchester by the Sea,” in which I ugly cried my way through a few nights ago. As a parent, it is brutal to watch. A tormented man (Casey Affleck) cannot let go of the fact that he accidentally and tragically leaves the fireplace in his home unattended while he runs to the store. He comes home to his house overcome by flames, his wife screaming, being held back by three or four men as she desperately tries to get to her babies, who are already lost. The movie is beautifully written, heartbreaking to process. I love a movie that makes me feel something—even if that feeling is horrible, it is still human.
This is what comes to mind when I say that I don’t love every moment of motherhood. The guilt sucker punches my gut, slaps me in the face with this truth: that their little lives and smiles and bones are really the most important things. That all else could fall away, but if I still have my kids, breathing, alive, then I have much to be grateful for. How dare I take that for granted?
I could end this here, now. I could say that because of that truth and that knowledge, I will be content. I will will myself into not wanting more. I will sit back and sip my tea and wash the dishes and pick up the legos and tell myself that this is all that I ever wanted, all that I will ever want. And in a way, it is. I'm not trying to downplay motherhood. But my kids will grow, the legos won't always be underfoot. I can't shake this gnawing and relentless question of: what else am I capable of? Why am I here? Is there another reason I haven’t yet uncovered? I'm not even talking existential stuff, I'm just talking vocation.
I could write about how endearing and irresistible it is that Theo almost always smells like a combination of dried sweat and pee, how I find wood chips in his boxers and sheets after a day of kindergarten, how his l’s and r’s come out sounding like w’s: “Wuke has a bwue wightsaber.” I could write about the time I woke up to Sophie about an inch from my face, at which point she said through her paci breath: “I wuv you mommy.” Her l's sound like w's when she's got that dang paci in her mouth. Or I could write about Evelyn and her obsession with not wanting to throw anything away, how she loves to horde old cereal boxes and make spaceships and houses out of them for her stuffed animals. She wants to be a doctor and an artist, which makes my heart sing. I say none of this facetiously. It is endearing and irresistible. They are my heart, my wild, my laughter, my exhaustion.
So no, I don’t want or intend to take them, or their eyes and curls and skin and breath, for granted. But I do want more, or rather, other. Other experiences, other threads to follow. I do not want to mistake contentment for laziness. When I say I have been trying to run away from it, that is to say: I do not want to willingly quit motherhood, no. If the natural order of things were to be cruelly altered, and my kids were to die before me, I would want to die myself. I would die. But, at the present moment, I do want to find my identity and my purpose outside of motherhood, while still within the midst of motherhood, so that when motherhood is a little less of the moment to moment, I might have an idea as to where to land. The moment to moment is already beginning to evade me, my youngest just moved out of diapers. This simultaneously triggers sadness and a sense of urgency. Essentially, I would like to know that I am useful for more than just cleaning up after everyone, which is not what motherhood is at all, but often times it feels like it is. I'd like to earn a paycheck, to be challenged in new and different ways. I'm talking about doing something that matters outside of my own walls. I'm talking about validation and being seen, being known, belonging, contributing. And yet at the same time, I want nothing more than to be alone, to inhale the air exhaled only by the trees.
And that is the gist of it, this thought that has been constantly with me these past few years. It is this idea and inescapable truth that we are complex and walking contradictions, and the contradictions don't necessarily discount the desires. The tension of competing longings should not induce shame. Frustration maybe, but not shame. We simply do not belong to one label and we can’t be described in full by three words. Not even in that one word: mother. And that’s ok. The contradictions are ok. The wanting is ok. The struggle, the seeking is ok. It’s actually the whole point.
The tension is how I know I’m awake and paying attention. The trick is figuring out how to prioritize and manage these competing tensions. It will look different from person to person. Essentially, I'm describing the inner turmoil many mothers wrestle with and what every women's magazine has already written about ten times over: how to have it all. I didn't mean to write a cliche. And actually, I don't know how to have it all. I'm just aware of and trying to reconcile this: I love my kids down to my toes and to the moon and back, and I want to be here, present, awake and in their lives, but I also see women out there in the world working with their hands, their minds, their voices, their words, and I realize that I want that, too. I want that for my daughters. I want them to know that motherhood and feminism are not enemies. That's kind of the whole premise of feminism.
I sit here, I write, I am interrupted every few minutes, which is why I try to write in the early morning hours before anyone else is awake to ask me for a snack. I look over my shoulder, all three of them are on the floor, playing. I wasn't supposed to come back to this. But I can't resist, I don't want to. Maybe I don't have to resist, but rather just push as hard for myself as I do for them. Maybe I came back to them right now because they are right in front of me, because in the not too distant future it will be impossible to do so other than in my memories. It will no longer be tangible or present. My son is in his Star Wars boxers and dirty green socks, leftovers from yesterday. Sophie wears pink socks over pink stockings underneath a pink skirt. They are innocent, wild, in their own world together. Evelyn's limbs crawl across the carpet, gaining inches daily it seems.