Six years ago this summer, I left the apartment where I lived by myself and walked to a train station with nothing but a large hiking backpack on my back. I would not return home for almost a month. After stepping on the commuter train to New York City, a conductor looked taken aback by my luggage. “Where you going?” he asked.
“Africa,” I said, barely even making eye contact. It never occurred to me that this might seem odd to him or anyone else. I went about my business, negotiating a variety of public transportation until I reached JFK Airport. The next night I was in Johannesburg. That was the year after my mother died. It’s a funny thing how horrific pain can lead one to freedom, and joy can sometimes feel like a prison sentence.
Was I happy my mother died of brain cancer? Hell no. But was I happy? Yes. It’s not easy to say, and it’s not easy to write, but I was relieved. After a long 18 months of putting all my energy into keeping her alive, only to have her die – after putting off grad school and taking a crash course in real estate, estate planning, and general legal and financial issues, I was ready to take what was left of my twenties by the balls. That year I visited Miami, San Francisco, Wyoming, Seattle, Costa Rica, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. That was the freest year of my life.
In contrast, lately I feel like an animal sitting in a cage at the zoo. Genus: Motherus Species: Guilt-riddendicus. Except my cage is open. That’s right, the door’s wide open, but I just keep sitting there. See, I built the cage myself. And I LIKE it. At least sometimes. I wouldn’t trade it in for Lesotho or Miami, New Zealand or Belize, or even an hour on the open road with the radio on full blast. It is the cage of investment in and desperate love for two very young lives. My 19 month-old twins.
This last week I reached a point where I let my rage leak out at them more than it ever had prior. I didn’t lose it or anything, but I snapped at them. I believe I repeated the phrase, “Get out of my way, please, PLEASE just get out of my way!,” several times. I also whined loudly, “O, please just stop screaming. You HAVE TO stop screaming. You just have to! Mama can’t take it. PLEASE!” It was hard to admit I was relieved when my mother died (in addition to profoundly sad, of course). It’s way harder to admit I hate being a mother.
But that’s the truth. I hate being a mother. That’s not the only feeling I have about it. I love it too. I don’t hate it enough that I walk out of that cage, or even that I wish I hadn’t built the cage. Having my babies was the right choice. There is no question. And yet, there are times when this rage builds up inside me. It is the rage of a woman who is used to wandering off to Africa for a month, and is now taking a stand by insisting on peeing alone. There is a loveliness in having someone feel they need you so badly that you can’t even pee. And yet, there is a blinding rage.
This all comes down to one simple and indisputable fact. I need a fucking vacation! Travel has always sustained me, nourished me, and brought me back to myself. At 22, I got in my honda civic all alone and drove cross country for a month. I often think back on those long stretches of highway with no one but Emmylou Harris to keep my company. I don’t even presume to ache for that freedom. That is the freedom of another lifetime.
I’m aching for the freedom to spend the weekend at a music festival with a friend. I’m aching for the freedom to leave the house randomly, just because I want to. But I don’t. I sit there in my cage. Because what I’ve realized is this it’s a cage that follows you. Laying on the grass at the Newport Folk Festival watching the sailboats in the harbor, listening to Connor Oberst, that cage would still be there. That investment in those two young lives wouldn’t waiver. And so the freedom never quite feels like freedom anymore. It’s more like the freedom to do anything you want within the confines of the cage. Perhaps that’s why I just sit here in my zoo, shell-shocked, wondering who that wandering woman was and what’s become of her.
And then there’s the guilt, of course. It’s easy for me to tell you not to feel guilty if part of you hates being a mother, it’s another thing to allow myself that space. Our brains are not wired to be comfortable feeling drastically different emotions at once. Our culture does not make space for that either. Mothers feel love, devotion, responsibility, and profound joy. There is no room in our culture for rage, disappointment, loss, and hatred in mothers. But the experience of motherhood doesn’t exist in the middle ground of “mostly rewarding” or “slightly challenging.” It exists at the excesses of transcendent love and soul-withering desperation. If we expect anything else, we are bound to conclude we are deeply flawed. The rational part of me, the part that’s a shrink, the part that can tell you to do as I say, and not as I do, tells me there is no way to not hate being a mother. Not if one’s actual self is anywhere in the picture.
So what to do with this rage then, and this searing, aching wanderlust? It would be easy to conclude I would have been better off without children. Then I could put aside this cognitive dissonance and just take comfort in the hard, cold truth. I would make a superb martyr. But I would not be better off without children. I know that because I’ve lived it both ways. I was told I’d never have children, and for me, it was an emptiness I could never feel about not seeing the wildebeest migration through the Ngorongoro Crater, not hiking to Machu Picchu, or not breathing in the view of the waterfalls of Yosemite from Sentinel Dome one more time before I die.
Parenting is the farthest thing from instant gratification. It’s kind of like eating broccoli, exercising, or getting one’s doctorate. The pay off may well be worth-it, but it happens slowly and without fanfare. One day we look back and we are glad. Glad enough that we feel our lives would have lacked a crucial kind of meaning without that thing we did. But most of the important things in life are that way, aren’t they? “Why am I doing this to myself?” seems to be par for the course at times during academic and physical pursuits, career ambition, creative and artistic projects, and meaningful relationships of all kinds. So why would we expect anything less from parenting? The difference is, we can take a week off from grad school, we can leave our maddening friend, parent, or even partner and take a week long backpacking trip through the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
So although the highs may be quite high, the lows in parenting can get pretty low because there is simply no escape. There is no such thing as a “vacation.” That word has ceased to have meaning for me. We expect to feel all one way, and that’s where we go wrong. We expect to love our kids, but why don’t we expect to hate them? How could anyone sit in that cage for that long and not hate it? The truth is, we want the cage, we don’t feel right without it. The minute I leave the house for desperately needed me-time I start missing those wild little buggers. I love them more than anything. But that kind of love comes with a willingness to give up anything. With great meaning comes great power, power we give over willingly to babbling, drooling, incomprehensible, wildly adorable little destruction machines. How can we not hate being reduced to quivering animals, terrified of losing our precious cages, no matter how infinitely we love our captors?
Copyright 2012, undercoverinthesuburbs.com, All Rights Reserved