Monday, September 13, 2010

Attach. Release. Repeat.

"Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world; it's accepting that they go away."
Shunryu Suzuki

I used to pride myself on being unattached to things. I liked to say that I could fit all my possessions into my car, and that's the way I liked it. I couldn't imagine that motherhood would change me into a thing collector, hanging onto ancient pacifiers and faded locks of hair. My humbling proceeded swiftly, when the day came that I had to admit, really admit, that my daughter had outgrown her first wardrobe—the truly tiny, surely no one is this small, hats and shoes, shirts and pants, dresses and pajamas. “We have to keep this one,” I said to my husband, clutching the giraffe sleeper I had put her in at the hospital. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I felt almost sick. I couldn’t remember which of the white hospital shirts was the first one she had ever worn and I wanted to know because I wanted to keep that one.

As it turned out, I wanted to keep almost everything. I felt my attachment like a hot hand clutching the core of my being—the very same attachment that Jesus, the Buddha, Patanjali, and myriad other enlightened masters have clearly pegged as the source of all human suffering. Clinging to the material world creates pain because whatever you are clinging to will absolutely, positively, no two ways about it, change. Disappear. Transform into something different. Become obsolete. Case in point: the teeny tiny giraffe sleeper bag. And of course, it wasn’t the clothes I couldn’t bear to let go. What I couldn’t bear to let go was already irretrievably gone.

When you hold something beautiful and sublime in your hungry hands--your baby, your lover, a moment, a phase--you want to hold onto it forever. It's human nature. And yet, letting go, over and over and over again, is the only sane response. Being a mother seems to be all about this paradox, of needing to hold on and contain and attach profoundly to our children--that's the job--followed by the necessity of letting go, with some measure of confidence, but absolutely no guarantees--that's also the job. We have to do both. We have to embody, daily, these opposite impulses. It's not easy. This is why there's so much weeping at graduations and weddings and the first day of Kindergarten--the sadness of what is passing and the joy of what is coming to be arise simultaneously in equal and opposite measure and the next thing you know, your mascara is running down your face and your kids are embarrassed.

In the end, I kept two tiny hats and a pair of shoes, and you can pry them from my cold, dead fingers when I finally give up the ghost. They are symbols of the ego softening truth of impermanence and my own human frailty. And, I can fit them in my car, in my glove compartment, even. I'm still like, totally Zen, right?

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Buddha, the Babies, Saturn, and Suffering

“Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, upon attaining enlightenment. He chose that sentence as the First Noble Truth. Numero Uno. As a mother, I can tell you, infancy provides plenty of evidence for his theory. In many ways, there’s nothing cute about the lives of these small humans--colic, teething, gas, birth complications, difficulty breast feeding, difficulty pooping, and any number of injustices any mother can tell you about. To ask, “Why is it like this?” is probably to bark up the wrong tree. If you do and you’re like me, you’ll end up thinking it’s your fault somehow.

There is so much romanticizing of motherhood that I found it difficult to bear the flagrant contrast between the projected ideal and my reality. I mean, we had our moments of being the beatific mom with the sleeping baby, but more often, we were the harried, anxious mom with the baby who would not stop crying and could not be put down for one minute. In her early infancy, my daughter cried without stopping for hours at a time. We'll never know why. She got an ear infection even though I was doing everything “right”. She struggled with seemingly incurable gas; we tried physical exercises, homeopathy, gripe water, chamomile tea, all of it; nothing we could do took away her pain. And, as if it were not hard enough to have a screaming infant on my hands, my mind tormented me: "DO SOMETHING, YOU INADEQUATE FOOL! MAKE IT STOP! THAT'S YOUR JOB! AAAH!"

I had a breakthrough one morning when I read an essay on the meaning of Saturn in Greek mythology. The author said that Saturn’s purpose is to teach us that life has a harsh side. Everyone has to deal with it; there are no exceptions. Through Saturn, we experience constriction, pain, powerlessness, and loss. These are human experiences, built in to the fact of being alive on planet earth. Suffering is as natural and unavoidable as breathing. It just is, man. Don't fight it. It's like trying to fight the sky. In spite of six years of meditating and studying Buddhism, I had somehow not really understood the First Noble Truth, not in terms of mothering anyway, and it was as if I were hearing it for the first time. I felt like a massive burden had been lifted from my chest. Life is harsh, I said to myself, and felt a strange enthusiasm rise up within me. "Life is harsh," I said again, out loud.

By the time my husband woke up, I was jumping around like a street corner prophet broadcasting The Truth: "Life is harsh! Life is harsh!" I handed him a cup of coffee and explained excitedly, “It’s not my fault that Elva got an ear infection and that she cries and nothing I do helps. It’s not my fault that she has gas. It’s not my fault that our birth plan didn't work out the way we planned it. Life is just like that sometimes. Being born is hard. Being a baby is hard. It’s not because I’m doing something wrong.” Apparently, he already knew this. For me, it was, and still is, news I can use. Every time I let go of feeling responsible for suffering I can't control, I have more energy to throw at the suffering I can control, or the things I can do to relieve the suffering that just is. And so, I'm very grateful for the bad news, and the good news, that my daughter will suffer and it will not be my fault and a lot of the time there's nothing I can do about it. It's just her birthright, along with joy, of course, and beauty, and love. All of which she's getting, and giving, in spades.

Friday, July 9, 2010

What It's Like

When my daughter was a toddler, my friend Dean asked me what it's like being a mother. I tried to think about how to describe it to him, a thirty five year old perennial bachelor, in terms that he could understand. I asked him if he had ever gotten stuck taking care of a friend at college who was really, really drunk and maybe tripping on acid, too. "That's what it's like," I said. At a social event, you turn your back for what seems like a moment and when you turn back around, your child is completely naked spreading yogurt dip on her private parts. And then eating it. At the park, where you turn away for just a second, one single second, you turn back around to find her chewing on a cigarette butt. And you spend a lot of time trying to reason with someone who is resisting you, uncoordinated, stumbling around. You talk in a loud voice, as if the problem is that they just can't hear you, saying things like, "I KNOW YOU DON'T LIKE THE CAR SEAT, BUT YOU HAVE TO GET IN THE CAR SEAT. IT'S THE LAW. I WILL GET YOU OUT OF THE CAR SEAT WHEN WE GET HOME. JUST LIKE WE ALWAYS DO. OKAY? I'M SORRY, I'M FORCING YOU INTO THE CAR SEAT NOW. IT'S OKAY." They are constantly falling down, hitting their heads, sobbing, getting back up again, falling down, hitting their heads, and... sobbing.

But just like your wasted college friend, they have these sublime moments of seemingly divine comprehension and connection. Waving their hand around in a sunny spot on the floor and laughing. Chasing pigeons as if they know what to do if they actually catch one. Rolling around in the grass with no thought, only the sheer joy of sensation. They will suddenly, when you don't expect it, give you a big hug, look you straight in the eye, and tell you they love you, so open hearted that your heart can only open in response. They are immersed in the moment in a way that's not possible if you're not drunk, enlightened, or under the age of five. And as nice as all that is, you still can't wait until they pass out for the evening so you can have a little time to yourself before you pass out, only to wake up and do it all over again the next day.

When your friend finally crashed, you may have taken a few photos to post online, or share with friends in some other format. The same is true when you have little children, only more so. My husband and I could not wait until our daughter was asleep--we were so exhausted--and then we would spend those few hours of potential "down" time looking at pictures of her on the computer. Unless your college friend was really hot, the comparison likely ends here. But up to this point, seriously, it's the same basic deal, only much more extreme. Your patience must extend considerably beyond a six hour odyssey holding the hand of someone who overdid it at a frat party. This is why nature makes little children so incredibly beautiful that it just doesn't feel right to abandon them.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

In Defense of Regret

I’ve noticed a lot of people take pride in saying they have no regrets. It sounds great, but I’d just like to say a few words in defense of this humble feeling, because it has gotten me places I would never have gone without it. It’s interesting, dark, and rich; a great deal of art and literature flow forth from regret; and, it is as natural an accessory to motherhood as a diaper bag. Personally, I did not know the true meaning of the word until I had my daughter, who stirred in me a love so deep and powerful that I would not have to think before taking a bullet or throwing myself in front of a train for her. I had never felt that way about anyone before. And in light of this great love, I wanted to make no mistakes. I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to be The Best Mother EVER.

This is not rational. It is not reasonable. It is not possible. And it’s stressful as hell. But it’s what many mothers are dealing with and it has deepened my relationship to thoughts like, “If only I had known then what I know now!” and “If I could do that moment over again, I would do it so differently.” At their worst, these kinds of thoughts can make you so mad at yourself that you drain precious energy from your life force beating yourself up. This, I believe, is a misuse of regret. Used properly, regret can galvanize you to do things differently, to do it better, to make up for what you messed up. Used properly, regret can inspire you to actually change.

What I regret most when I look back on my early years as a mother is my lack of understanding, at times, that my daughter was developmentally incapable of doing what I wanted her to do. I also really struggled with my temper, and I regret every time I ever “lost it” with her. The depth of my regret over these mistakes inspired me to do some serious inner work and I have made more progress taming my anger than I ever have in my life. Now, when I start to get off track, usually my regret alarm goes off--a visceral nausea that reminds me, "Don't go there. You will regret it if you do." And 9 times out 10, I don't. The other times, I get a chance to say "I'm sorry" and model for my daughter how human beings can take responsibility for their mistakes, and how they can't be perfect, and how every moment is a chance to start over.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Listen To That Voice

I often feel I have two women living inside me--the Mother and the Artist--and they are always fighting. They fight over resources--time, money, energy, attention. They are philosophically at odds, one believing that serving another is of the highest value, the other believing that expressing the self is what it's all about. For the past five years, the Mother has been almost completely dominant, the Artist locked in a closet in the basement, and drugged. Now that my daughter is moving out of the super needy infant/toddler stage, the Artist is BACK, and boy is she pissed. She wants what she hasn't been getting these past four years, with interest. And for better or worse, she's not going to get it. She knows this, and it makes her moody and petulant, mean as a snake sometimes. She feels dangerous, like she might run off to Mexico without notice, or smoke a cigarette, or not go to bed until 3 in the morning, just to be BAD. Keeping her in check, while giving her enough of what she wants to prevent a total disaster, is a balancing act.

In some ways, the Artist is good for the Mother, and the child. She sets limits the Mother does not set. She admits she has needs beyond eating and bathing. She takes space from her children whether they like it or not (they never like it). I have a friend who's a father and a songwriter and he told me recently that he has always taught his children never to interrupt a songwriter at work. This may be the difference between mothers and fathers, I don't know, but I suddenly thought, Sweet Jesus, why didn't I think of that? We no longer live in a world where "Daddy does lots of interesting things, while Mommy is all about you," but, when I am stuck in the Mother role, I still play by those rules a lot of the time. Our children need a lot of love and undivided attention from us, true, but they also need us to model, at the appropriate time, independence, autonomy, and self-actualization. In the end, if I do so, I send my daughter an important message: If it's okay for me to stake out my personal space so that I can write songs and paint, it is okay for you to claim your space from those who would stand in your way when you want to make art, or jump out of planes, or meditate, or pursue your dreams in whatever way makes sense to you.

I know not all mothers are artists, but I think every mother, at a certain point, has one of those days when, suddenly, she looks up from the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she's making, or the child she's bathing, and thinks, This sucks. That voice is the voice of a self that has seen no time, no attention, no air, no light, nothing, for too long. That self needs you. I am here to urge you to listen to her. Give her a shot. Give her half an hour at the end of the day, or two days every month. The sooner you do, the safer you'll be from waking up three years from now in a cheap hotel in Tijuana not even caring if your kid got to school on time. If you're like me anyway.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

You Are Not Alone

"Bad Mommy" moments are often born out of the perfectionism that grips so many mothers. It is because I carry within me the image of the perfect Good Mommy that I also carry within me her shadow, the Bad Mommy. My inner Good Mommy never needs a break from her children. She provides nourishing, organic fruits and vegetables at every homemade meal, and never speaks harshly or, God forbid, yells. She knows how to handle everything. She is not tired and her children never cry or freak out in public. She is not depressed, resentful, or angry.

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, I do my best but still find myself stubbornly human and flawed. Many days I don't look even remotely like the Good Mommy of my dreams. Yesterday, for example, I desperately wanted to be alone (which already makes me a bad mommy, by my own definition; see above). On top of it, I was alone--alone with my emotionally reactive, demanding, talkative four year old! I couldn't get an inch of space or a second of silence. She broke down weeping repeatedly. It was like a regression to the terrible twos. I kept trying to make it better, but given my limited energy and patience, instead I made it worse. I know enough to know that she just wanted to connect, but I felt like that was the one thing I couldn’t do. My inner resources were seriously depleted. I needed some time to be there for me before I could be there for her in any kind of real way. As the day progressed, I began to get the “Julianne Moore in The Hours face”--the glazed, almost frightened look of one who is, only with great effort, masking a riotous desire to run screaming into the street like a mad woman and do God knows what, anything, anything, to make it all stop!

I made it through to bedtime without fleeing the apartment, and I guess that's success of a sort. Still, I am not proud of the memory of my daughter hitting my butt repeatedly with her princess shoe while I tried to ignore her and get the dishes done. I am not proud of yelling, "Go away from me! Go away from me! I need some space!" She cried and threw herself on the floor. This definitely landed me solidly in the "Bad" Mommy category. A lovely friend of mine recently confessed that she fears her neighbors are not talking to her because all she seems to do lately is lose her temper with her two kids. It’s a true friend who tells you things like that, because otherwise you’re left utterly alone, thinking you’re the only one who fails to live up to your best intentions to be a great mom. The truth is, we all fail some of the time. We go through phases when it seems we are failing almost all of the time. And still, the great majority of us get up the next day and try again. In the end, I think that if there is such a thing as a good mother, that’s what it looks like.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bad Mommy Caught On Tape

I recently heard a recording of myself talking to my daughter when she was two years old. I was scolding her, saying, “Now that’s exactly what I DON’T want you to do. I spent a lot of time making that food for you and I don’t want you to pour water in it.” I sound like a complete jerk. And so confident! It’s even worse when I hear her adorable little voice on the recording—so innocent and sweet. I can’t stand myself in that moment. And yet, I’m happy I heard it. It’s so easy to think I am more conscious than I really am, especially when it comes to my child.

If I overheard another mom talking to her child in that tone with the completely unrealistic expectation that a two year old would do anything other than pour water into her food, or should be concerned about how hard this self-important woman worked on making her food, I would judge her ruthlessly. And yet, clearly, I have been there and done that, and I have only myself to judge.

And judge myself I do. And then I judge myself for judging myself, because I know that how I treat myself is how I will treat my daughter. Case in point, that nasty voice lecturing her about her food is the same voice going in my own head all day, commenting on my own behavior, judging me. I don’t want to be judgmental with her, but how is that possible if I’m doing it to myself all the time? It’s a crazy little feedback loop that just keeps on giving. Now that she’s four and a half, she gives as good as she gets. Half the time, I wonder where her attitude comes from. The other half, I realize with horror that it comes directly from me.

So my goal this week is simply to notice the tone of my voice, both inside my head and out, and to own it—to see and accept how hard and critical and mean I can be. Then, for the coup de grace, I am going to try to love myself anyway.