Of course I love them, they are my children.
This is my daughter and this my son.
And this is my life I give them to please them.
It has never been used. Keep it safe. Pass it on.
The Mother, Anne Stevenson
I subscribe to a women’s poetry list serv, and this poem was circulated recently by a member. I keep reading it over, trying to get at the tone of the poem. Has the speaker truly accepted that she has “given over” her life to her children? Is she OK with that? Is the poet holding up her resigned self-denial as a model, or shining light on it in a more critical way? I can’t tell, and I don’t know much about the poet, so I can’t go there (and probably should let the poem stand on its own, anyway.)
It was a hard morning in Pokey Mama’s house. The plan was for my husband to whisk my kids off to the county fair so I could get some work done, including the writing of this post. (You may have noticed in the past couple of weeks that not only has Pokey been pokey, she’s been downright invisible.)
Why is Pokey so preoccupied? So glad you asked. It’s because she started a new job. It’s one I wanted and am damn happy about. But I still have my other job. And my writing job, of course, which is a significant marker of who I am and makes me feel good when I can do it. Oh, and that other side job of mine, mother.
I know. You suspect Pokey’s winding up for a dull, prolonged whine. I’m not. Unlike many Americans, I have employment! I get to teach a poetry workshop at a fabulous place for interesting and engaged students. I’m part of an organization that does great work on behalf of land conservation. I have two healthy children, a supportive husband, a roof over my head, plenty to eat.
I’m blessed. I’m privileged. I’m grateful.
And completely, utterly, overcommitted.
So I talked myself into not going with my family to the fair, which was hard because I love the fair and I love going to the fair all together, the four of us, a tradition. But I consoled myself with the fact that yesterday we had a great day, my daughter got to have a friend sleep over, I made the best cookies of my life, (really, they are so good!) so c’mon Pokey, what’s to feel guilty about?
But I did feel guilty, in part because I was SO excited about having the time to work. To work! Not sleep, eat bonbons, watch Glee on Hulu—work.
But somehow it all just unraveled. Fast forward to yelling, insults, me sobbing in the laundry room (why do I always go there to cry?) And now they’re gone; my little fur family, hobbling off to the fair sans mama bear, who scraped herself off the couch, made a cup of tea and thought about this poem and Shel Silverstein’s story, The Giving Tree.
The Giving Tree is one of those books that people buy you when you’re pregnant. I think we got three copies. I’d never it read it myself, but assumed it was something I should look forward to sharing with my theoretically lovely children when they were old enough for that kind of thing.
Well, imagine my surprise when I cracked it open the first time. Do you know the story? Basically, this kid takes and takes and takes from this apple tree until the tree is just a stump and the kid is an old man and they both die.
I know it sounds sad but the tree is delighted to keep giving of herself to the selfish, callow child/youth/adult that only comes back to see her when he needs something. Did I not mention the tree is a she? The tree is his Mom! And he chops her down! Awesome.
At the time when I was supposed to be enjoying this classic with my toddler, I was consumed by the conflict between wanting to be a “good” mother and feeling a total loss of self. I had no idea where I was as an artist, I lost my sense of subject, couldn’t locate a context for my experience in the literary canon. Should I write about being a mother? Would anyone care? What would happen to my “reputation” as a writer if I chose motherhood as a place to start from?
I couldn’t find a form, a subject, a voice. Pokey was stuck.
But according to The Giving Tree it was not only OK to lose my sense of self as an individual and an artist, it was appropriate and necessary. It’s what a good mother would do.
Here, have another apple.
I know, I know, it’s not Shel Silverstein’s fault. Clearly, the mother-model of unstintingly generous nurturance and endless self-sacrifice is not his invention. Look at the poem we started with—it’s everywhere. But seriously, is that what we’re supposed to be doing? Because I didn’t sign up for that.
Let’s break it down: yes, when they are babies and need to eat every three hours when you would rather sleep, you get up. When they are toddlers and pull everything within reach off the shelves and onto the ground and smear paint on the couch and stick their fingers into the dog’s eyes, you deal with it. Ditto for poopy diapers, tantrums, boring games, annoying behaviors, etc. You give over a large portion of yourself to their needs. You have to, it’s your job, it’s the right thing to do, and you love them, so you do it.
When your kids get older, it’s different. You still have major maintenance duties, but they’re more of a psychic and financial nature. I’m not sure it’s any easier, but there are more rewards—like getting to go out without having to pay for a babysitter.
But when kids reach the age of reason, is it really best for them to see us as a bottomless well of patience, nurturance and resources? I’m not talking about withholding love. Love needs to be spoken and reinforced, no matter how old we are. But as a mother AND…I want my daughter and my son to begin to understand what it’s like to have to struggle, make compromises, experience disappointment. I want them to feel it and know that they can survive. Most of all, I want them to see me as a whole person—an artist and poet and worker who also chose to be a mother.
I don’t expect them to bow down to me in gratitude (OK, that might be nice) but I do want them to know that along with the benefits, there are costs to the choices we make. You know why Pokey wants them to see that? Because it’s the truth. And someday, they will grow up and have to make choices, too.
The cost of my choice to have children is that I have way less time for my artist/poet self. The benefit, of course, is them. I know I came out ahead on the deal. But that doesn’t mean I have to celebrate the compromises I make. I don’t have to like it when I get interrupted for the umpteenth time while I’m trying to write. I just have to deal. Sometimes the deal may include (metaphorically) grabbing them by the ruff of the neck and shaking them or at least some loud growling (sorry, I’m stuck in the bear conceit).
That’s OK. In fact, it’s good for them to have to be patient, too. If they’re not bleeding, they can usually wait. And it’s good for them to see that mama has needs, and sometimes loses her temper and can apologize and start over. For example, I apologize to you, dear reader, for allowing this blog to languish, and I apologize in advance for when it will happen again, which I’m pretty confident it will, because as I’ve said before, Pokey’s a real person.
When my kids get back from the fair I will be happy to see them. I miss them even now, when I’m so glad they’re not here and I get to make art that feeds me. I can hold both of those feelings at the same time. I’m not sure, but I think that’s called balance.