This is the song that always makes me cry when I’m afraid I’m screwing up my son. Thanks, Pink Floyd! Pinkie, did it need to be so high?
The reality of motherhood bears no resemblance to its public image*. Motherhood gets ripped from the experience as most of us live it and gets draped in a gauzy, soft-focus sentimentality that completely masks its emotional potency. Becoming and being a mother is as common as dirt, in spite of the fact that for so many it’s surpassingly difficult to achieve. And yet it’s a gritty, bloody, soul-shaking business, not merely because you have literally invested another human being with pieces of yourself and set it free into the world – although that should be enough to send anyone round the bend – but also because of the transformation that occurs on every imaginable plane in a mother. My parenthood, such a blandly ordinary and yet fearsome thing, has been the scene of my most superhuman feats as well as my basest failures.
We owe our parents our apologies, but they also owe us theirs; I have to believe that, when it comes to pain, it’s the most reliably reciprocal relationship in the world. So maybe no one owes anyone an apology, because it can be understood that you will inherit whatever pain your mother is in (despite her best intentions) and that her forgiveness of her own parents is the fee she paid to receive yours. That is why I think it’s the world’s outstanding therapists who deserve the tenderness awards, because so often they lead us carefully through the thorny brushes to that place of détente. It may be too cynical to say that the best thing a mother can wish for her child is a good therapist, but I doubt it.
My son wasn’t twelve hours old before he became the recipient of my own peculiar trifecta of emotional issues – control, anxiety, and perfection – each sharpened to a gleaming, ruthless point by the hormones running amok in my body. I flatly refused to send him to the nursery. Who would hold him? How could I trust the nurses not to let him lie in a bassinet and cry? I don’t think I slept four hours in the first two days after his birth, mainly because I wouldn’t allow him to be taken from the room. My own mother came to hold him so I could sleep. My son’s father, who had none of the necessary biology, social conditioning, or general hypervigilant tendencies, had no trouble falling asleep that night or at any time during his babyhood. But my son would be almost eight years old before my sleeping patterns would return to their pre-parenthood state. (I still leave my door cracked at night, and his door open completely, so I’m never cut off completely from him. It will be that way until he takes the initiative and closes the door himself.)
For those first few days after his birth, sleep felt like a reckless abdication of my duty to watch over my child. “I can’t sleep unless someone is holding him,” I admitted to my eldest sister when she came to visit. “Why not?” she asked hesitantly, as if she knew the answer but had to ask anyway. I paused. “I’m afraid he’ll die,” I whispered. A veteran of two births herself, she just nodded. “I know,” she said, with a sympathetic look on her face. “But he won’t.” Then she picked up my son and let me nap for an hour.
Two things righted my gravely listing mental ship after a few days. First, my hormones evened out. Second, I discovered there’s a biological imperative that can overcome a mother’s protective instinct: the need for restorative sleep.
My son wasn’t hurt by his first encounter with my occasional inclination to white-knuckle life. But he has been, and he will be again. I see it, I work at it, and I excoriate myself for it. And then I fail again.
I was reminded of all this by a conversation I had with my own mother this week. I was gratefully able to look her in the eye and say, essentially, “Mom, I worked it all out. We’re good. No harm, no foul.” I was also amused to note that the things she was most desperately worried had harmed me were not even on my Top Ten List. That’s right; your kids may never be remotely hurt by the failures you obsess the most over. It’ll be the stuff you have no clue about, that you dismissed as unimportant because you are two separate people, and mothers don’t read minds. (Though you wouldn’t know that from the fetishized notions of motherhood our culture so frequently serves up.) But in the end, it’s their job to work it out. Just like yours was to work out your own mother’s failings. I read somewhere recently that “love flows downhill.” So does pain, and the responsibility to work through it. And in the end, I figure that anyone as concerned as I am about screwing up is probably meeting the basic ethical requirements of motherhood. I don’t have to worry about flagrantly disregarding my child. But good old fashioned failure, inevitable as it is, will always be with me.
So I hope my son finds a good therapist. I’ll probably even pay for it.
*I write about motherhood not to dismiss the importance of fatherhood or exonerate fathers from the perpetuation of human pathology. You all know me better than that. I write about motherhood because it’s what I know. I’ll leave it to a father to write about fatherhood.