It’s been almost four years since I originally published this. I’m posting it again for a couple of reasons: one, because Katherine Stone has been fundraising for this tremendously important cause and so it’s been top of mind, but the kind of top-of-mind that I keep trying to push down, because there are ghosts here, and I don’t really have the emotional bandwidth for coping with ghosts. Which is why, I suppose, (and this would be reason number two), I completely broke down reading this piece by Pam Belluck in the New York Times. Messy, ugly, lock-the-office-door-and-crouch-behind-your-desk-weeping broke down, the kind of breaking down that you can’t – or shouldn’t – ignore. So I searched for this post, to remind myself that those aren’t ghosts – they’re memories, of fighting real monsters. And to remind anyone who wants or needs reminding that the monster isn’t us. We’re the monster-slayers.
It was just one night, and one night, measured against the course of a lifetime, doesn’t seem all that significant. But it was a dark night, and I have never been able to shed the weight of the memory of it. I have never been able to put it, as they say, in perspective. I never will.
Jasper was not quite six months old. I had not slept in weeks. I lay awake as he stirred and fussed, bracing myself for the moment when I would have to rouse myself fully to nurse him or change him or soothe him. The darkness that night seemed particularly black, the kind of black that has a density, a weight. To say that it felt like it was closing in would be to use a trope that gets overused when writers are trying to describe dark nights and oppressive fear, but in this case it was true. The darkness was closing in on me like a heavy fog, like an army of ghosts, like a slick of oil, like night made solid and sinister. I couldn’t breathe. Jasper continued to fuss. I fought the dark.
I fought the dark. I think that I won. Even at the time, I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure.
Before Emilia was born, I had a very clear plan about what kind of mother I was going to be. I was going to carry her with me everywhere in designer slings, I was going to hand-blend my own organic baby food, I was going to shun pacifiers, I was going to teach her sign language before she was six months old, I was going to lose the baby weight before she was four months old, I was going to forbid any and all toys that were not hand-crafted by Swedish artisans from entering my house, I was going to swaddled her bottom only in cloth diapers hand-laundered in eco-friendly detergents, I was going breastfeed her until she was two, I was going to not let her watch television until she was three, I was going to clothe her only in garments woven from pure cotton by Tibetan monks or, at least, certified Disney-character free. I was going to be master of my maternal domain! I was going to be the very best mother ever, and nobody would be able to deny it!
Then Emilia was born. You know where this is going. There was a pacifier in her mouth before we wrapped her bottom in some Huggies Little Snugglers, bundled her in a Winnie-the-Pooh sleeper and took her home from the hospital.
I’ve been meaning to post a list of the ten things that I love about motherhood. Having posted about the things that I hate – albeit with a corny post-script about loving the love, in spite of it all – and having read all the wonderful comments about the silly and sublime things that other mothers love, it seemed the obvious thing to do. But I’ve been sick – really sick, allergy-induced sick – like, stab-myself-in-the-head-to-make-the-pain-go-away sick – and there’s nothing like being sick while two small, batshit, sugar-jacked creatures jump on your prone, aching body and natter ceaselessly about WHEN ARE WE GOING TO PLAY PIRATES MOMMY YOU PROMISED WHERE’S MY COOKIE I ASKED YOU FOR MILK to make it really, really hard to think of anything good to say about motherhood, so. That’s maybe going to have to wait for a day when I don’t hate motherhood and the world in general, and also when I can sit up without wanting to stab myself in the head.
A writer at Newsweek wrote last week about how her son – and the general state of being that is motherhood – is torturing her. Then a writer at Jezebel responded to the story with something very close to exasperation: “I was left, as I often am by pieces on parenting, at sea. Nowadays, there is such a dichotomy at work: the hazy romanticizing of baby culture wars with the it’s-a-nightmare/I-don’t-love-my-child/I-wanted-another-sex” backlash and while one is surely designed to remedy the other, those of us who haven’t had a baby are left, ironically, with no very clear idea of the reality.” A consequence of this, apparently, is that childless women – unconvinced by the hazy romanticism of some stories and horrified by the ‘it’s-a-nightmare’ confessions of others – become terrified by the Unknowable But Very Probably Sort Of Horrible condition of motherhood and are put off having children. Population control!
The reality is, none of us can paint an entirely clear picture of the reality of motherhood, because the reality of motherhood defies tidy characterization. Which is why, arguably, we see so much cultural discourse about motherhood that skews strongly in one direction or the other: we are constantly trying to get our bearings, and sometimes it’s just easier to do so by telling ourselves that motherhood is just so undeniably all-around awesome or that holy hell this shit is HARD and sticking to those stories. And yes, those stories that skew dark are frightening, but then, so much of motherhood is frightening, notwithstanding the moments – and there are many – of awesome, so.
I’ve spanked my daughter. I wrote about it earlier this year. It was just once, and under very specific circumstances – she was putting herself and her baby brother in danger and she needed to be stopped, quickly – circumstances that don’t excuse the spanking but do, I think, explain it. I didn’t spank out of anger. I didn’t spank as a matter of habit or consistent practice. I spanked because nothing else was working in a given moment and circumstances demanded that I do something. I’m not proud of it. I hope that it never happens again. I fully intend that it never happen again.
A report was recently released that suggests that spanking might be a good thing, that kids who are spanked might be better off, might turn out better, than kids who are not spanked. This, I think, is troubling. Not because I think that spanking and spankers are in all circumstances evil and terrible – my own parents were spankers – but because I think that although spanking is not always or necessarily abusive, it tilts too obviously and too dangerously in that direction and anything that encourages the practice just might, you know, grease the slope.
Yesterday, I took part in a televised discussion about so-called ‘bad parenting,’ shame and confession. I wore a lot of eyeshadow.
I never wear eyeshadow, so I was really kind of embarrassed by it. Later, when I asked my husband what he’d thought of the show, he said, ‘you had some really good things to say, but you looked like you were in pain.’ ‘That was the eyeshadow,’ I said.