Are we done yet?
Have we reached the optimal escape velocity? Learned enough buzzwords? "Toxic positivity" is my new personal favorite, along with "boujee mom". What about strategies for coping with burnout, how are we doing on those? I have tried meditation, medication, CBD, long walks, "mommycations", margaritas and crying, journaling, shopping therapy, regular therapy, you name it.
Did we finally figure it out? Are we well balanced between self-care, career, and parenting now? Have we recovered physically and overcome the emotional challenges? After two C-sections, a breast reduction surgery, and a few years of chronic back pain I am back at, say, 75% functionality, and I seem to have ceased having major mental breakdowns every three months (PMS crises excluded).
Where are we on reading all the mommy forums and articles about child development? Did we talk everything through? Are we on top of it, and moving on already?
Are we good?!
I don't think we are, entirely. The kids are still here, raising them is still hard as fuck, and if we are lucky (because, what's the alternative?!) this will continue for another 10 years to a lifetime.
But there comes a point of saturation when a sort of a willing, happy resignation settles in, and you are, like, fine. For me it started happening in the beginning of this year, and by the time my firstborn turned 7 in April (and with my second one turning 5 in the summer) the BIG GIANT STRUGGLE WITH MOTHERHOOD was over. Seven years of me kicking and screaming, whining and wailing, banging my head against the wall because I simply couldn't accept my role as a parent or give in to it, let alone embrace it.
And I couldn't do that because I didn't fully understand what it truly meant to me. Seven years of intense, miserable perplexity were over in one single moment, and I had (seemingly) nothing to do with it.
I picked up my children from school as ever, took them to the village playground to let them play and get their excess energy out as I usually do, and just like that, they were suddenly good. They didn't fight, bicker, tease and bother each other. They were nice to me. They were calm (as calm as two small boys can be before dinner on a Friday) and they were polite. Miraculously, oddly, they listened to me and no one fell, got hurt, had an accident, or did anything dangerous/embarrassing/stupid. It was perfect. And I had absolutely no idea why.
I didn't care, either. I watched them being good and nice for the rest of that weekend and well into the following week, still slightly skeptical and deep inside waiting for the other shoe to drop, but mostly I was in total awe.
The joy I felt then was an unfamiliar kind of joy. I've had a million funny, happy, proud moments with the boys before -- though motherhood has always been hard for me, my love for them is infinite -- but I was never so effortlessly jubilant. The sensation was very new. I felt utterly satisfied. There was no "but" and "only if". This was it. This was the uncompromised, uncomplicated, gratified happiness talked about in movies, books, and parenting blogs that I scoffed at and discarded as fake. I was pleased.
Of course the boys did not remain angels for long. The peace was soon broken by the familiar, everyday stuff (whatever that stuff is -- kids mainly fight and complain and give us a hard time about small, unimportant crap). Stress returned and calamity resumed... Only something has changed. Some altered reality was afoot. A new chapter, a different phase: this one significantly easier and more pleasant than the former.
Could it be that all the hard work was finally paying off? Maybe the kids had accumulated and retained the critical amount of discipline and wisdom that we have so relentlessly been drilling into them? Is it possible that they had now cultivated enough of our guidance that we could sit back and, for the first time since their birth, chill for a minute?
Apparently, yes. We did a good job! Things will change again and there will be new challenges, but for the time being, at lest, we deserve a break.
7 and 5 are good ages. The boys are still cute and innocent, but they are old enough to understand abstract concepts. They strap themselves into their car seats. They help around the house and are better behaved in public. We have become buddies. We hang out. And we can be apart more often, and for longer too. They have their own friends and interests and activities. They make me laugh, hard. I continue to provide guidance and support, but am not needed every second of every day. I am rarely overwhelmed or frustrated anymore, and lately there seems to be almost enough time. All in all, credit must be given where credit is due: we have grown and adapted, and become better at both being ourselves, and coexisting. Aside from a few particular issues (as human nature demands) on the whole it's really, truly good times.
In retrospect, crossing the proverbial Rubicon was inevitable. Time passes strangely once you become a parent: the days are long but the years fly by. Yet we keep moving forward, and through ups and downs progress is made. The kids grow up (just as fast as the cliché goes), we grow older (and hopefully wiser), and eventually life settles into a rhythm that allows us to breathe and look up every now and then.
I barely remember my pregnancies, and my memories are surely selective and skewed by emotion. I recall the best (baby kicks) and the worst (HEARTBURN, BACK PAIN) parts, but very little in-between. I've dealt with the trauma of my first labor and childbirth experience, and I cherish the beautiful delivery I had with my second son. It took awhile (and it took a lot), but I dealt with it.
I healed from the damage to my physical and mental health. With the help of John, my family, and modern medicine (also with a large dose of will power and/or desperation, you gotta work with what you have and anger is a big motivator for me), I built myself up again after, quite literally, being torn up and cut open to have babies. My body was transformed, and so were my relationships, my lifestyle, my outlook, everything (not to mention how expensive it is!).
The newborn months are long gone. The first year milestones were met, the Terrible Twos and the Threenage days came and went. Teeth grew and fell out, potty-training is done, Toddlers became Preschoolers. I survived sleep deprivation, Post Partum Depression, temper tantrums, and separation anxiety. I nursed sick children and kissed boo-boos. I made a million PB&J sandwiches; I watched cartoons and played LEGO's; I refereed arguments and chased bad dreams away. I volunteered for Kindergarten art shows and helped with First Grade homework; made Valentine's Day cards and bought Halloween costumes; held birthday parties and organized playdates; took road trips and signed up for camps. I was the chauffeur, the cleaning lady, the coach, and the teacher; I cut hair and clipped nails and read stories and played tag.
I wracked my brain for how to optimize my household and I invested time and effort to adopt a sustainable routine. You try this and you try that, then see what works. I worried about things like "hyperactivity" and "inattention". I protested against gun violence, and taught my children about feminism and the environment. I got together with other moms and had discussions, and I supported other women in this crazy, weird, wonderful process of raising kids. I perpetually questioned my own relationship with the boys and revised my parenting style, hoping that I could improve and become more confident.
In the meantime (among other things), I got my American citizenship, travelled, started dating my husband again, bought a home and moved, found friends in my new community, took photos and wrote stories, and did what I generally do -- enjoyed my life and my cats.
I still do most of those things, and more. We all do. You better believe it: women are Superhero Goddess Warriors.
But I didn't know this in the beginning.
My struggle with my role as a parent used to stem from my inability to separate, or better yet, to consolidate, two identities -- the mother and the artist.
I was given the biggest responsibility of my life so far, and I took it very seriously.
I was galvanized and fueled by the enormity of the love I had for my children. And somewhere in between sleep training them and enrolling them in school, I found myself totally consumed by motherhood. Every aspect of my life suddenly revolved around the kids; not just my time and energy but also my emotional and intellectual capacity. I was still vulnerable, weakened by giving birth and hazy from the infant stage; each big or small thing my kids experienced deeply affected me. I struggled with tasks I thought should come naturally to me, like bonding and breastfeeding. I felt like their health and moods and development reflected on my caring capabilities, and my identity became wholly wrapped into motherhood. If they were unhappy, sick, or if they had trouble with something, I took it as a personal failure.
I put enormous pressure on myself. To be a "good" mother, to do the "right" things. To stay afloat and relatively sane, I had to put everything else on the back burner. Eventually both boys started school full time, and I had a chance to take stock. It turns out, the price of being a Superparent is too high. I had been so absorbed in "getting the hang of it" I had failed to notice that I was in constant pain. The loving, enthusiastic responsibility had turned crushing and burdensome. I was depressed most of the time, and angry all the time. The guilt didn't help, either. I was aware of the paradox: the closer I felt to my kids, the further away I felt from myself and my writing dream.
I yearn for freedom more than anything else in this life.
Art means freedom to me. Freedom to be a woman, a sexual being, a writer; to think and to feel. For the longest time I thought that motherhood doesn't mix well with either of those things. I assumed that, in order to be a good mother, I had to give it all up. Sometimes it happens organically, gradually, and worse -- unnoticed. When kids come into the picture, everything else declines in priority. And if you are like me (or like most new moms), you have no idea what you are doing in the beginning, so you throw yourself into it completely to compensate.
I was extremely hard on myself (as if things weren't hard enough already!) and I was constantly torn between trying to be a good mom and trying to maintain my creativity. I was a hot, hot mess of a person trying to raise a family right, all the while feeling (albeit unconsciously) frustrated with them for keeping me away from my writing.
Quite absurd, isn't it? I (wrongly) believed that I had to choose between the two, because I feared that the moment I devote myself to art/writing I'd somehow be neglecting, even betraying my family.
I don't believe that anymore.
Motherhood, not unlike any other human condition, is hardly black and white. It is a baptism by fire. It is repetitive and menial. It's an affliction. It eradicates the ego and it is bad for your bank account. It can also be a terrific fun! It makes you immune to shit -- literal and metaphorical. You inevitably become highly flexible: adaptation means survival. Motherhood gives you upper body strength you've never had before, and it's the perfect excuse to get out of social engagements you don't want to attend. I learned this as I wiped noses and pushed strollers and clawed my way out of depression. Here are three other crucial things I figured out:
- Things will not go back to "normal" or to how they used to be. Firstly, there's no such thing as "normal". Secondly, everything changes and nothing ever stays the same. That's the nature of life even without kids, so don't expect to go backwards. Look ahead and embrace impermanence.
- Things will not get easier after [insert milestone here]. Some things get easier, but others -- harder. It's just different, and you become more experienced at dealing with it.
- There won't come the "right" time to do what you want/need/love. You will be busy and tired forevermore, you'll just get used to it. Life doesn't stop when you have kids, if anything it goes even faster.
I also learned that what children need and want, above all, is love. And that's something I don't have any trouble giving. They take this love and reflect it back, they multiply it in their messy, silly way, and it's pretty amazing.
As for my motherhood/art conundrum, I discovered that it's not really the kids that hold me back from writing. It's me. It's always been me. Sure, motherhood keeps me occupied and drains me -- if not motherhood then it would be something else. I have a problem with procrastination, fear of beginnings, trouble finishing things, and a case of mild but persistent OCD (cleaning will be my demise!)
Writing a book, the book, has been on my list since I graduated high school, and for some reason or other I still haven't checked it off. It's not being a parent that stops me, or the mundane distractions of the day. Whatever the shortcoming is, I'll need to figure it out in another essay... This one is about accepting motherhood as my own, and forgiving its unpleasant side effects as best as I can.
Moreover, while family is the most important thing (and I would not hesitate to drop everything whenever they need me and be there for them), there's an entire world out there worth experiencing. I genuinely look forward to showing it to the boys, and to teaching them how they can make it better (I'm looking at you, Alabama and Georgia). So yeah, no more motherhood posts for the time being.