Once upon a time I was terrified to get pregnant, and the commitment we were making to parenthood as we faithfully temped and charted was abstract at best. I understood that a baby would dramatically change our lives, but it was difficult to conceptualize what that would really look like, and I was panicked by the looming reality of what we would lose–freedom to travel, disposable income, sleep, sanity, perhaps, as I gazed down the line at what it would be like to juggle my unreasonably demanding job and a needy little person who would depend on me for every breath and morsel. We dove in anyway because I am a realist about maternal age and didn’t want to get caught on the wrong side of that 35+ equation. (Joke’s on me: my ovaries think they’re 42.) Point is we only moved forward with the TTC enterprise because I felt penned in by time, and really I was still too selfish for motherhood…
…because selfishness is the antithesis of mother.
It would be quaint to say that the dead pregnancies and cycle failures cultivated some deeper appreciation for the intangible gifts of raising children, but really it has just wounded me with a permanence that blots out optimism and trust in the path ahead, left me spiritually bankrupt. “Historical disappointment,” my therapist calls it. However, what it has given me is the time I thought I couldn’t afford to waste–time to indulge myself, to experience the mounting boredom and dissatisfaction with those indulgences, and most of all, to simply watch parents and children so I could wrap my head around what it all means, the object of this quest. (Sometimes it can become obscured by the chase.) I arrived at this: motherhood is selfless love, by definition. I know it’s incredibly simple, and to many, probably obvious, but my mother is not selfless; I had no model; I was groping in the dark for this concept. We were having dinner once with my friend Joy and her husband when their sick toddler woke up after throwing up in his bed. She put down her wine, gave him a shower, started the sheets in the washer, and carried him out like a little whimpering monkey on her chest, wet hair, letting him wipe his runny nose in the crook of her neck (termed “the skin tissue”). This scenario–the lingering smell of puke, the snot on her neck, the interrupted evening–was a powerful glimpse of the real thing because simultaneously she was also perfectly content. This decidedly unglamorous moment: that is real motherhood.
Whenever I think about this idea, my mind flashes back to this picture I took at the Met in New York a little over a year ago.
It was a raw day of seeking distraction, a swollen day warranting extra make-up and coffee. We were on our way to the sculpture garden, my favorite section of the museum, and she was tucked into a corner of one of the hallways on the mezzanine above. I don’t even know her name, didn’t think to jot it down in my little black journal like usual, because she unraveled me so, flooded me with a longing so powerful my heart literally ached in my chest. Mama stays awake, watching, shielding, while little cherubs slumber, unaware of danger, secure: I thought, Yes, I want that. I am ready. And when I stood, captivated by her, I remember digging into the center of that ache, this smoldering ball of warm light, pulsating with a vibrational yearning to give myself over to something greater, cramped and cordoned inside my rib cage, unrequited. This is what propels me along on this quest with the uncompromising force of gravity, and sometimes this undirected longing to love feels like it will burst from the seams of me or come spilling from my throat in waves I can’t control.
I get it now.
I might have to credit this epiphany, in part, to the recent collision of the fates. Coexisting under the same roof as my own mother, the anti-mother, from Thanksgiving to the new year was surprisingly transformative because it shattered the last remaining delusions, stripped the whole thing down to its sad and naked truth: she does not care about me. Allow me rephrase: she does not know how to really love someone. She simply doesn’t have the tools, the wherewithal to look beyond herself, her own melodrama, her own imagined and self-inflicted crises, to take the perspective of another human being and give generously of her spirit. She is the center of her own universe, and while she is attached to me in a way that feels like love to her, it’s still lined with a self-serving agenda. She wants to preserve her genetic pension plan. She needs me…to rescue her, to indulge her bouts of victim’s misfortune. Not once in all the time she lived here, day in and day out, as we fretted and planned and feared this ultimate cycle and verdict on biological children, as we mourned yet another holiday season spent wishing and wanting and grieving, did she ask me, “How are your holding up?” Not once. Instead, she greeted us each day with a firestorm of her own petty minutia, turned, and went about her business without a single word of reciprocated interest or concern. She tried to write me a heartfelt Christmas card, and the message was, “Thank you for all you’ve done for me.” Doesn’t that really say it all? I can think of a hundred other notions that might have flitted through a mother’s heart as she wrote to her suffering child, but instead her only focus is gratitude for what I can do for her. She is entirely self-consumed.
In a strange way this realization is…liberating? I have been locked into a guilt cycle with her for decades, and every time she finds herself in crisis, I writhe in a stranglehold of compassion, pity, and worry until I finally swoop in for the rescue. This is extremely taxing, as one might imagine, because she is perpetually in crisis, and juggling her problems alongside this grueling and protracted war against God and my ovaries has often left me in tatters. But all that devotion was grounded, it seems, in a fundamental belief in family that, as it turns out, was nothing more than a mirage. She hollowed me out, cauterized the last shreds of attachment, and now I’m free. She doesn’t have the power to hurt me anymore. It’s like that line in The Wrestler, when he seeks a reckoning with his daughter:
I just want to tell you, I’m the one who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. It just didn’t work out like that…You never did anything wrong…And now, I’m an old broken down piece of meat… and I’m alone. And I deserve to be all alone.
But watching her unwittingly sever herself from me was like the yin to the yang. I can see now with startling clarity exactly what kind of mother I want to be. I want snot on my neck. This ball of green light is made of selfless, unconditional love. I hope some time soon I’ll get to wrap it around my own child. The last effort in Colorado is in process as I write this. Only time will tell.