Contemplating Mothering

My relationship with motherhood is tangled and complicated. Most of the time that isn’t a problem, but Mother’s Day brings the snarl out into the center of my attention and I spend some time, once again, pulling on various threads to see where they come from and where they lead. I suppose that someday I hope to make sense of this mess that used to be clear.

Motherhood took a long time to sit easily in my brain. The actions of it, the nurturing, the teaching, the loving, those came easy, but self-identifying as Mom felt uncomfortable. Like wearing clothes that were the wrong size. When I wrote notes to my kids I signed them “mom” because that was the correct designation. I think it began to feel not-strange when my oldest headed off to college and we did a lot of communicating via email. I signed things Mom, and she reverted to calling me Mommy, which she hadn’t done since she was very little. She was off and being an adult in new ways, and she needed me to be the Mommmy she fled back to when adulting got too hard. The moment I knew when I had fully integrated my mother identity was when I said something to a writer peer, and he joked back at me “yes mom” which was when I realized I’d totally Mommed at him. My statement had been a quintessential Mom thing to say and it fell out of my mouth by pure habit.

And even as I write that paragraph, I think maybe it isn’t the full truth. I remember the very early days of my motherhood. I cuddled my baby, trailed after my toddler. I remember sitting in a rocking chair, one child asleep on my chest and another on a bed three feet away. Neither could fall asleep without me there. I remember thinking how I’d reached the best part of my life, that everything prior had been foundational for this. I dove into motherhood, turned all my hobbies to its service. And I was happy. Tired, overwhelmed, frustrated, but even those emotions lay on top of a bed of happiness. This is also truth about my motherhood.

Later, the kids were older, I was older, I no longer dealt with hourly hands-on care of little ones. The toys stayed tucked away in the cupboards instead of exploding across the floor on a daily basis. I was so glad to not have to manage little ones anymore. So glad to have hours at a time to myself. There was joy in children who could join me in adult conversations. They could make jokes that actually surprised me with full laughter rather than the polite laughter that was required during the ages of Knock Knock jokes. My calendar no longer had cute sayings scribbled in the margins, but I no longer did their laundry nor spent hours trying to convince them to go to bed.

And yet, somewhere as we began this older kid stage, we left the map. The young years were exactly as I’d expected. Exhausting and joyful in ways that made me cry and laugh. Looking back, the kids’ atypicalities were always there, but they blended better. Then one day, they didn’t. The parenting-a-teenager experiences that I expected did not happen. No waiting up for dates. No watching my kids abandon home to spend hours with friends. Few teams or clubs. Instead I had endless meetings with teachers. Far too much diagnostic testing. Hours of listening sympathetically while my kids told me all their thoughts. Or alternately staring at a closed door because I’m shut out. Coaxing kids out from under furniture. Having my suggestions rejected.

It sounds like whining to say “this isn’t what I expected.” But the grief of that experience is very real. It feels like terrible ingratitude to be sad and grieving when I have four healthy children who’ve all grown tall. They have so much potential and here I am crying because they haven’t bloomed at the same rate as others. On days when I have good perspective, I can see that the bloom is coming. On the days when I’m down, the current state seems unending.

On Mother’s day I feel grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a mother and grieved for other opportunities I’ll never get. I feel bad that I can’t just remember the gratitude. I know I’ve done a good job, and I have a long list of all the ways I could have been better. I think about how I should step up and do more. I also wonder if they’d be better off if I stepped back and did less. I think of my friends who wanted to be mothers and never had the chance. I think of others who had motherhood taken away from them. I think of women who decided not to become mothers. I think of my mother and feel guilty that more of my thoughts are not centered on her instead of on my own tangle of things. I think of other women who mothered me and who are due thanks. All of these thoughts swirl and tangle around each other until I can barely see where one thought ends and the next one begins.

Some mother’s days feel beautiful and full. This one, I wanted to hide from. And all of these words only cover a small portion of the mother-related things I thought about and cried over today. Fortunately the day is almost complete, a mere 15 minutes remain. Then I can get back to living motherhood instead of contemplating it.