MAY 2007 – NO. 15
In motherhood, my life no longer revolved around the small orbit of my self
The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea—
Forgets her own locality—
As I—toward Thee
For the first six months of my daughter's life, my brain refused to work. It functioned haltingly, shifting gears with great difficulty, and often, it simply refused to think about anything. Its well-tuned pathways, the ones that had always dealt facilely with dates, images, history, memory, the ones which could pull words from a vacuum to make meaning — these froze, clogged not by misuse or overuse but through some deliberate and nasty hormonal trick. All of my mind was devoted to Ella, and it dwelt on her ferociously.
Instead of considering Hawthorne's reinvention of the novel, I watched Ella invent new ways to propel herself across the floor. The questions I pondered were no longer speculative, but consequential: not why does Isabel Archer defy her aunt, but when will Ella learn that "no" is not a game? What I wanted to know was how to get my daughter to sleep, not whether sleep was a metaphor in The Blithedale Romance. All of this made teaching and writing difficult. It took Herculean effort to begin each seminar, to leave behind the long, tired, endlessly slow and nonverbal days and plunge into the heart of a book.
My life no longer revolved around the small orbit of my self. My world was my daughter; I now orbited her. And when she was six months I began to understand what had happened: that I would always be Ella's mother, and I would never assume an identity so important as that one. The little girl in the park who told me her mother's name was "Mommy" was right: if her mother had a name beyond that one, what did it matter to her?
Ella's claims on me were not just physical, but mental and emotional. Aches, soreness, tightness, the return of sciatic pain in my back and hip, these reminded me that there was no rest. But worse than that was the realization, when Ella was seven months old, that sleep was no longer restoring me. My physical exhaustion was merely a symptom of a much deeper, more pervasive and insidious fatigue. One Friday night, Kory arrived home from work to find me lying in bed, half-watching the television. I refused to speak in full sentences, refused to cook dinner, and he served me leftovers, in bed, in my pajamas. The weekend promised no break, no release from the work of the week.
It was not so much any one thing; the diapers, the crying, the sleeplessness, the new aches that come with each growth spurt, the feeding, the teaching, the repetition — each of these tasks added up and up, so that the sum far exceeded the parts, until you were finally and wholly taken with the small things of life. And though you thrived on giving yourself over to your child each and every day, if you were not very careful, you, your self, could simply vanish, be taken away.
My new-mother friends reacted differently to the burdens and realizations of these months, when the monotony and miniaturization of motherhood became patently clear. One mourned her single life: being able to go where she wanted, when she wanted. Another had trouble adjusting to the radical new vision of herself required by motherhood. I always thought I would travel, she confided. I thought my life would always allow me to pick up and go, at a moment's notice. Another struggled to succeed in her career — which she now practiced part-time — and her motherhood. And another confessed to feeling imprisoned by her son, his need for naps. I want to be out in the afternoons, she said. Yes, I thought. Of course.
But our children began and ended our thoughts, our sentences. On my one, true day off, my birthday, which I spent at a spa being soaked and steamed and massaged, my mind was full of Ella. She hovered there, larger than life, like life itself.
Edna Pontellier's claim that she would sacrifice her life, but not her self, for her little ones is perhaps the essential and abiding truth of Kate Chopin's book. Yet even as motherhood changes the outward manifestations of your life beyond recognition, your inner landscape will be transformed by a fierce and selfless love. This love is so riveting, so addictive, that at first I did not notice that I had become undone by it, that I had crawled into a cavern so dark I could hardly tell my hand from my child's, or distinguish my heart from hers. Then, noticing, I did not care.
Remnants of your former self will remain, perhaps to surprise you by returning many months, even years, later, like pieces of cloth from a favorite dress. From this notion, you might recall a pattern, construct a new garment for yourself.
Even then, motherhood is a role that you can never throw off, not even with death. For what child will think, the writer who was also my mother is dead? You hope she will think my mother, who was a writer, is gone.
And in the spirit of that realization, I began to think that someday, my daughter might not care that I walked through the spring rain in Princeton, in love, poems blossoming in my mind. Nor that I hiked a precipitous path to the summit of Slieve League, clung to the cliff and gazed down in terror and awe at the Irish Sea, taking measure of the very height and depth of the sublime. Nor that, many decades ago, I sat in the fork of an old crabapple tree and read books to my baby brother. Nor that I danced with her father in a cave in Paris, or drank gin with my best friend 110 stories above the world in place that crumbled violently away. I began to think that none of these things would concern her, that there is just the one thing.
Now, understanding, my heart aches for my own mother. To have known her as one thing only, to have loved her so fiercely for that one thing — when she had all that life beyond us… . This is the crisis of motherhood and, perhaps, its central sacrifice. If we are strong yet unfathomed, like Edna Pontellier, we are both loved and drowned. But if we are strong and lucky, the struggle may return us to ourselves, seachanged, hoping that our children will one day piece together the patterns our larger lives have made.
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