There’s something I’ve noticed about the way I occasionally think about and judge myself as a parent. I love structure and order and discipline, and for the most part, I stand by the parenting decisions that fall under that category of order and predictability. Sometimes, though, sometimes the further outside of my comfort zone I stray, the more unlike my usual self I am, the more I feel that I deserve some kind of a parenting gold star. It’s as if by not being myself, I am being a better self. The hard work of keeping life on schedule and enforcing rules of civility actually feels pretty effortless to me. It’s allowing the rules and the schedule to relax that feels like hard work. To be honest, sometimes fun feels like hard work, and that’s when I most doubt the parenting path I have chosen.
I let the kids splash in rain puddles, I give myself a pat on the back for not freaking out about the mess (while secretly freaking out about the mess).
I say “yes” to letting the kids dog-sit, professing a kind of generosity of spirit while feeling anything but generous.
I let them stay up late to watch the hockey game, and for most of every minute past bedtime, I’m on edge, but I congratulate myself for being able to let fandom prevail over clock-watching.
More troubling, I herd my children home from the park for bath and bed and watch other parents letting their little ones stay up later and get dirtier than my kids (ie. letting them have more fun) and I wonder if they are doing it better. Do those Other Mothers have more gold stars? Are the mothers who say “no” less often better in some essential, incontrovertible way?
Fruitless feeding of the mommy guilt machine. It’s the dark side of empathy: moving so much outside of yourself that you begin to question that self and all it holds dear.
The really refreshing thing about reading many of the essays in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, was that I could really immerse myself in other ways, in others’ ways of being and simply enjoy that otherness without thinking, “I have to be more like that.” It was glorious to look into that kaleidoscope and feel as much myself as ever; it was wonderful to look at difference without feeling the need to be different.
Carrie Snyder’s wonderful essay about reveling in being a mother of four did not make me feel like I had to have a fourth in order to keep up. I simply enjoyed her telling of her tale of motherhood.
Heidi Reimer’s essay about adopting her infant niece made my heart fill with joy that there are such generous and daring people in the world, people who can let love into their lives, and make it multiply, in spite of the enormous emotional risk.
But I was most affected by the essays by women who are not mothers, by choice. It’s dangerous territory, walking with the happily child-free. It’s not like I, a mother of three, could ever go there. Would they make it sound too appealing? Would their profession of their child-free bliss, their certainty, open some part of me to gnawing jealousy or doubt? Would my hard-earned share of parental satisfaction be diminished by opening myself to their stories?
Not in the least. As certain as they are about being childless, I am certain that motherhood, and the way I am practicing it, is exactly the right choice for me. It was the best kind of exercise in empathy. It was a chance to have a privileged perspective on another way of being without feeling in the least bit diminished by it. On the contrary, I felt enlarged by reading these essays, I felt certain about my own choices without the least trace of smugness or self-righteousness.
Sometimes what defines us is what we are not. Sometimes that’s a tricky thing to negotiate. In this collection of essays about motherhood, in all its manifestations, nothing felt tricky. None of the stories about what I am not made me think less of myself. Some of the essays were difficult to read because they tackled difficult topics, but they did what good art does: it moves you, it purifies and purges the emotions and offers renewal and restoration.