On Motherhood

It dawned on me the other day that, although I began this blog with the idea of allowing my writing life and my life as a mother to intersect, motherhood has not shown its face here too often (except in Confessions - funny how that works). So, I thought it might be time for a post on motherhood.

It’s a topic so huge that one post can’t begin to scratch the surface. And even though I think all mothers have some common experiences, I also believe that there are as many experiences of motherhood as there are mothers in the world. Each woman’s journey of motherhood ends up being its own unique and complex tapestry -- and one that is never completed, not even on the day that she dies, for her legacy continues in the world through her children and their relationships. Sometimes I have thought of motherhood as tingeing the downstream waters with my blood, my voice, my habits, my songs, my stories, my tears, my love, forever.


Once I wrote a poem about a real, live day in my life. It, unlike many of my poems, was a true story. Here it is:

February Lament

I have no fruit, no milk. No bread
baking in the oven. Nothing warm
simmers in a pot for dinner this deep
winter’s night. No fire
in the hearth. The hallway’s grey
and darkening: no light.

But I have hand-painted love
notes for all my dearest ones.

And a poem.

When I took this poem to my Monday night writing group, one of my colleagues observed: “Even the hand painted love notes are not for you - you gave them away.” “Yes,” I said, “I guess that’s what mothers do.”

And to some extent, it’s true: mothers give everything away, if we’re not careful. I used to do this. I devoted all of myself, all of my time, all of my strength and energy and creativity to motherhood. I judged that I was being a “good mom” (raise your hand if you hate that phrase) by devoting all of myself to my family, by making them my only priority.

Then I started noticing how impatient I had become. I realized how completely exhausted I felt. I noticed I had been using the same writing notebook for years, and it wasn’t even close to full. I started having these weird experiences during which I felt like I was being erased at my edges. It was an actual physical sensation that most often occurred when all three children were screaming at each other over something, and I was locked in the bathroom trying to keep it together (and not succeeding very well). And one day while my edges were being erased, I realized I wasn’t enjoying myself very much; in fact, I thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for motherhood at all.

I knew something had to change or we would all end up miserable (in “good mother” fashion, I worried most about the kids ending up miserable). I understood on some intuitive level that I needed to start taking better care of myself or I would not be a “good mother” any more; I would be a wretch. Here’s what I did (with the help and support of Husband) to change things:

-I started saying “no” to the kids more often for no other reason than it made my life easier.
-I hired more babysitters.
-I learned to admit to myself that I needed help sometimes, and then I learned to ask my friends (and even some strangers) for that help.
-I spent the little money we had saved for college on preschool, and (next year) on tuition for all-day Kindergarten.
-I made my writing a priority, even if it meant leaving the house for a few hours on the weekend, or turning on the television during the week.
-I lowered my standards: Sister’s hair not brushed today? No big deal. Lunch? Spaghettios and canned peaches. Messy house? To be sure.
-I put a gate up in Sister’s doorway to keep her in her room all night so Husband and I can sleep.
-I started sleeping in. I used to be up and ready to go by 6:30 so I could focus on getting the kids ready for the day. Now I sleep until I wake up (usually 6:30 or 7:00) and then scramble around to get The Bean out the door. Later, I flip on Curious George for the little guys and get myself ready.
-I stopped making “To Do” lists. They never got completed anyway.
-I learned to sit down. For long stretches of time.
-I started writing the truth about both the joys and the challenges of motherhood in my journal. Sometimes I have to tear out the entries later (you know, in case they ever read these journals after I die -- God forbid!).
-I decided it was okay to be a “good enough mother” instead of a “good” one.

Looking at this list now, I guess I just learned to let go a little bit in practical, small-scale ways. Sometimes I get back into my old “good mom” habits and I feel my edges being erased. Then I know I need to stop, breathe, regroup, let go, and start taking better care of myself. Again.


Last summer at Camp duNord I was enjoying ladies’ night at the authentic Finnish sauna, and got to talking to an older woman who had raised five boys. I said to her: “You must have taken really good care of yourself,” for she seemed to have weathered the challenges of motherhood beautifully. “I didn’t at first,” she said, “and then I finally figured out that if I didn’t start taking care of myself I wasn’t going to make it.”

At first I was thinking to myself, “I wish somebody would’ve told me that seven years ago!” But as I thought about it, I think people probably did. At the time, either I didn’t believe them, or I didn’t know what they meant. And maybe it’s also true that this is a lesson every mother must learn for herself.

I think motherhood is hard, no matter who you are -- rich or poor, single or married, healthy or not-so-healthy -- and no matter how many kids you have - one or ten. Raising children to adulthood is just no easy task, and each family, and family configuration, has its own strengths and its own challenges. But as all the moms of the world know (and all the dads, too), it’s also an extremely rewarding endeavor. One of the rewards is that we learn and grow as individuals. We gain wisdom, find truth, develop new strengths and understanding. Maybe, as in my case, even learn to let go a little bit.


Yesterday morning, Sister got into my special stuff drawer. Inside the drawer, amongst other things, were dried rose petals from the flowers my aunt K. sent me when AJ was born. They were a reminder to me of the sweet rewards of motherhood, even amidst the thorns. Running into my room at my wits’ end, I would plunge my face into the drawer to smell the very faint - but, yes, still there! - perfume of roses.

Sister flushed them down the toilet.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell her to stay the hell out of my stuff! I wanted to rail at the gods that there’s not one corner of my life that these kids don’t get into!!!

Instead, I took a deep breath and said nothing. As every mother of a Finding Nemo-era child knows, all drains lead to the ocean. I found I could let those rose petals go. Let them tinge the downstream waters. Forever.

(Photo is of the kids and me on Mother’s Day).


jillreicks said...

Five kids later...my baby is 16...there is hope. Best of all, you are doing the very, very best thing by learning the importance of taking care of yourself. Start thinking about it as making yourself a more interesting person for your teenagers. My kids are very glad that I have friends, interests other than them and a life that has opinions, ideas and dreams.

Molly Spencer said...

Thanks for your comment, jillreicks - I love to get perspective from moms whose kids are older. I never thought about how taking care of myself could make me a more interesting mom when my kids are older. And really, that's a gift to them, too.

K.J. said...

I realize, now that my kids are 16 and 13, that I did not, no way, no how take any kind of care of myself when my kids were little. That was a big mistake.
You are doing the right thing. Once they became more self-sufficient it was easier for me to let go and do more for me. We have raised our kids with not one speck of family in town. That is much more difficult, although it has made the four of us very close. I applaud you for being honest about your good and bad feelings. Helps the immune system.