You dear people. Toni Morrison says motherhood frees a person from baggage and vanity. And you? Let me read your words back to you:
If anything, it felt like having kids stripped me of everything about myself that I liked. I truly felt like my life as I knew it was over.
Personally, having my first baby broke my life into a bunch of little pieces, and it took me about a year to get it put back together again in a way that made me feel happy and whole.
…liberating? Um, no. Hahaha!
Is this why I love you? Or is this why you’re here? Or both?
The funny thing is, I also love (real life love) some people whose hearts bustle with throngs of sugar coated angels when they hear Toni Morrison say motherhood is “the most liberating thing that happened to me.”
The difference between us taunts me.
For a long time I embraced the role of relentless parenting curmudgeon, sneering at all rosy statements and issuing ominous warnings to prospective parents. Which was rotten of me, in a way, and obviously sometimes rude.
I felt (and still feel) a responsibility to counter the ever-present oversweet image of this whole enterprise. Even in a time when bad mother is the new good mother and complaining is supposedly hip among moms … it still seems impossible to utter the word baby without filling the air with flowers and tinkling chimes. Even the hip complaining has a hyperbolic, humorous slant, so that, like Ann Lamott’s Operating Instructions, I can hear it more easily as an account of one quirky person’s madness than as the harder, truer thing I wish we could all speak and hear about more freely.
I’ve been trying for the past year to write more poems that touch the hardest parts of my years of parenting babies. Poems are the best way to do this, because this is an area where ordinary language fails us. I don’t think someone contemplating parenthood can hear stripped me of everything about myself that I liked, not really. I think that the moment you set down the word baby or mother or milk, you have poured honey and glitter over every single other word on that page, and on adjoining pages.
After all of my months as curmudgeon and writer trying to speak through the glitter and honey and flowers and chimes and be able to tell what it really was like for me. (And you! Some of you. And many others.) After holding that at the center for so long … and after soothing myself over the loss of what I’d hoped would be a purely happy and gorgeous time by basically declaring my crushing experience to be universal … I am watching two new families—people I trust and love—care for their first babies, and you know what it looks like?
It looks like sugar and windchimes and singing angels.
And I don’t think this is just because of the weird looking glass that life throws up between parents of infants and everybody else. I know people keep their pain private (I did), and I know other lives look better without being so.* But I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The curmudgeon would say These friends are just in denial! When they tell you everything’s great it’s just because they haven’t yet lost the battle with the inevitable creeping despair at how their whole beautiful old life is ruined!
But I’m no longer the curmudgeon. I believe them. The curmudgeon truth in my heart is still there, but it is shifting to one side to make room for a twin truth (still a puny, malnourished twin, but growing). The beautiful new parents I know are soaking up every glorious minute. Their babies are wonderful. They cannot imagine it any other way. They are so glad they chose this path. It takes all of the generosity and largeness of spirit I can summon to say those things with sincerity, without sarcasm or bitterness, but now I say them, even as those twins keep thrashing at each other inside my heart.
The difference between us haunts me. But at least now I’m ready to see that it is a difference, not a lie. Loving them and believing them, I keep wondering why, and I start to imagine a language where the word why doesn’t exist.
* That Miranda July movie, The Future, where in a moment of self-pity she looks through the apartment window at her neighbor, a stranger, brushing her hair and sighs, That woman really has it together? That’s me, all the time.