11 February 2008

In a Recent Conversation with Myself

I've been giving a lot of thought to the feeling of apathy lately, or maybe not apathy per se - but distance, from myself, from my children, from my life. I have no doubt that these feelings stem from my recent state of limbo, but they've always been there in the background, maybe even from the beginning - whenever that was.

I adore my children. I admire the way they learn things, the way they express themselves, the way they scrunch up their faces and say, "So, does that mean..." They are amazing creatures, my two girls, and as they grow into themselves and need me less, I admire them all the more.

I love my life. I have an amazing partner, someone of whom the phrase "we're in this together" can be spoken with sincerity. A man who is willing to move halfway across the country just so I can get an English degree (English? really? so what, you'll teach?) is not something one finds everyday, let alone one who comes with the kind of kitchen skills mine's got. I wish for no other.

Still, even as I love what I have, anticipate what the future will bring and make my way through each day as it presents itself, I often find myself thinking, meh: the mental equivalent of a shrug.

Of course this is not without its effects on me, on my family, on my parenting. One thing that I have found myself thinking about recently is the idea of "having it all," of living a life that incorporates aspects of self-nourishment that simply mothering can not provide, but of course also having the deep joy that comes with the work of mothering. This came up in a conversation I had with a friend, and then again in a post by Amy at Milk Breath and Margaritas.

What does it mean to have it all? Can it be done? Maybe. But the point is this, that in every moment is a choice and as each choice is made, all other possibilities fall away in invisible layers.

In the afternoon: Should I play a game with my children, or hide in my room, hope (assume) they're okay and read a book?

In the evening: Should I put my children to bed early and do something for myself, or read with them until they fall asleep on my shoulder?

In the morning: Should I get up and make breakfast for the little darlings, or lie half asleep in bed and listen to them push chairs across the floor as they get it themselves?

The problem with having it all seems to be that the answer to all of the above questions is yes. Yes and yes. And of course that's impossible. Each choice presents itself with some coy appeal, whether it is the soothing simplicity of the everyday, or the thrilling guilt of a stolen moment. So is having it all really possible? Well, yes and no.



It depends.

Last night I read a short story by Lorrie Moore, called People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk, about a couple whose baby develops cancer and their experiences in the pediatric oncology (peed onk) ward. The mother in this story (called only the Mother) is naturally sarcastic and maintains an emotional distance from her child which felt familiar to me. This is not to say she wasn't devastated by the Baby's cancer, or that she didn't do everything in her power to protect the child, whom she clearly loved, but the kind of jokes she feels guilty about making once the baby's cancer is discovered are the sort of jokes I make all the time. (Oh yes, Freya is the Evil One, just listen to what she said yesterday...)

I don't think there's anything wrong with having a sense of humor about life, in fact, if I can enjoy a humorous story about a baby with cancer, well, there's really no limit to my depravity is there? What if there isn't? So what? After all, I take pride in the fact that I am the sort of mother who allows - encourages really - the mummification and ceremonial burial of Barbie dolls. In my mind I am the sort of mother who sips dry martinis at cocktail parties and laughs lightly about the charming or idiotic things her children do. Never mind that I don't much care for dry martinis, that's not the point.

Whatever social shift has occurred in the last decade or so to create parents who are so involved as to actually accompany their little darling to his first job interview (gag me, please), has left me clinging to my apathy. (A contradiction if there ever was one.) Who says that children with ultra-involved parents are better off than those with parents who nurture both themselves and their children? Are they the same ones who imply that I should feel guilty if I choose to spend a Saturday hunched over my computer, barely hearing my daughter call my name until she sneaks up behind me and yells directly into my ear?

The distance that I feel (or put) between myself and my life, is that a coping mechanism? A safe guard against over-involvement? Or is it just the way I make it work - a natural by-product of trying to have it all: if I give a fuck, will it be
too hard to handle the truth when it turns out I can't have everything after all?

Of course I care. But I can't care deeply, passionately all the time, that's just not me. (It sounds utterly exhausting for one thing.) Of course I feel that surge in my chest when I look at my daughters, notice them in a fresh way. And of course I push myself to feel nothing as I slump on the couch and idly listen to them fight without bothering to intervene.

Is this what having it all means? Maybe. Yes and no. It means loving what I have, and trying to have more, but without sacrificing myself and without sacrificing my children. It means making it work, and even though on the surface saying it out loud sounds like a contradiction: it means making compromises.

Photos, from the top: 1. Matilda's Barbie Art, created last year, 2. Freya with marker and a sour face, 3. Freya, having her cake and eating it too, 4. Matilda last summer in Bar Harbor, Maine, 5. The girls in dress-ups and with Legos


Thalia's Child said...

#1 - Matilda has quite the future ahead of her in the art world. LOVE the barbie art. Fabulous

#2 - Thank you for writing this post. I have conversations like this with myself on a regular basis too, and it's such a relief to know that I'm not the only one. I recently had the 'I never want to go back to work but if I don't, Punkin is going to make me completely insane' conversation with myself and I felt like a horrible mother for all of five minutes.

But I've come to the conclusion that I cannot be one of those parents who lives entirely for my child. I love her with all my heart, but I am still someone other than Punkin's Mommy. And I think that's okay.

Amy said...

The Barbie art is AMAZING! Love all the pictures of them!

Thanks for the linky-love and thanks for this post. It's spot on, and I wish I had a better comment but I'm still thinking. That must mean it's good!

Cathy said...


This was dead-on, Nell. So glad you put it out there.

Anonymous said...

Holy sh*t, Nell! This post completely blew me away. I read your comment over at Amy's place and was hoping you'd write something about this.

I have many of these same feelings - I have a feeling we are a very similar type of mother. I love my kids fiercely, but I also love the parts of my life that don't involve them. I need that balance, you know? I gave up on feeling guilty over a year ago - just gave it up and have never looked back. Now if only I could do the same for apathy...

Seriously, this was effing brilliant. I wish I could have said it so well.


Annika said...

I have so many thoughts on this subject, but they have all flown out of my head to make room for the STUNNED DISGUST at the helicopter parents article. Oh. My. God.

Jessica @ A Bushel and a Peck said...

I think its all about the balance--half the time you choose to read them books until they fall asleep on your shoulder, and the other half the time they go to bed early so you can read a book yourself. And then, you really do sort of have it all. You just can't have it all at once.

Great, thought-provoking post.

Queen of Shake-Shake said...

Payton reads to himself. I can't wait until Parker can too. It's been 7.5 years....I'm ready for more independence.

I wonder how much of the ultra involved parent is a myth. I've never really met one IRL??

Laura R. said...

Hey Nell. Download this (Speaking of Faith episode with Rachel Naomi Remen) and listen to it from start to finish, either on your iPod taking a walk, or with a cup of tea in front of your computer. Something about this post of yours made me think of this podcast.