Many people speak of the joys of parenting. Others speak of the highs and lows. Not many speak of the despair and desperation. Then again, each of us has our own distinct experience of mothering, and I am assured that lots of people don’t experience despair and desperation.
I’m here to speak for those who do. It’s part of my personal war on shame. (See this post.)
As a new mother, I felt battered by how hard it was. The sleep deprivation, the relentless demands, the sacrifice, the necessity of surrendering over and over again. Because of the conspiracy of silence around mothering, the relatively mild complaints of my mothering friends and acquaintances did little to validate the extremity of my experience – and of course some of them were not experiencing the same degree of extremity. Some children just are easier to raise than others, and some women just are more suited to being mothers. I felt slightly insane as well as battered. As always, I looked to books to explain my experience. I was sorely disappointed. Most parenting books glossed over the difficult patches with a glib, ‘if these feelings persist, obtain professional help.’ I obtained professional help, but it didn’t help much. I didn’t have post-partum depression. I had been hit by a train called motherhood.
A few years later, I began to run across the really useful books. For a humorous take on mothering, there were Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, Vicki Iovine’s The Girlfriend’s Guide (published in Britain as The Best Friend’s Guide…) to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood and Simmons and Curtis’s Can I Give Them Back Now?
Then I found books like, Your Children Will Raise You (ed. Eden Steinberg), The Bitch in the House (ed. Cathi Hanauer), If Only I Were a Better Mother (Melissa Gayle West), A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (Rachel Cusk) and Torn In Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence (Rozsika Parker). These books finally validated my own experiences by naming them. These books satisfied my atrophying mind by not just naming but also by analysing these experiences and placing them in a socio-cultural context. Mothering is sometimes hard not just because of deficiencies in mothers or their child-rearing methods, but because of biology (human babies are born so helpless, sleep deprivation truly is mind-altering), psychology (every woman brings her personal history and personality to the job), anthropology (e.g., the difference between parenting in communal cultures and parenting in individualistic cultures), sociology (e.g., the wildly unrealistic and conflicting expectations society places on mothers) and policy (e.g., maternity and paternity leave and pay, childcare standards, availability and cost, etc.).
Various books describe parenting as a spiritual path (e.g., Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent, by David Spangler, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success for Parents by Deepak Chopra, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and John Kabat-Zinn). I found them interesting, but they didn’t provide the solace I needed.
What helped the most was these words by Melissa Gayle West in the first chapter of If Only I Were a Better Mother. If Only describes mothering as a spiritual path and provides valuable guidance for each step on the path, along with warm reassurance and support. I offer these words in case they help another mother, and because for me, they expand mothering from its everyday delight and tedium into a rich, mysterious, multi-layered journey to the next level of consciousness.
What if your experience of the sacred and the dark with your children are simply opposite sides of the same coin? What if it is possible that, by accepting the darkness and opening into it rather than fighting it, you could emerge with an even deeper sense of mothering as a spiritual path than you ever had before? What if, indeed, the darkness that you have all experienced as mothers could be a gate into an even deeper relationship with your own children, with yourselves, with the Sacred? What if this could be so? What if…?