Monday, May 9, 2011

On Love and Damage

Anne Lamott, whose book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year should be required reading for every mother and mother-to-be, was interviewed by Meredith Maran at Salon.

Since I find pretty much everything Lamott says to be brilliant (except for her thoughts on pitbulls, which I think are rubbish), I was excited to see this interview. It's all very good, but I was particularly interested in this part:

The thing is, we all -- parents -- went wrong so many times, in so many ways big and small. It has been important for me to understand that we are ultimately powerless over how our kids turn out -- how, as adults, they choose to live, and whether they want to be close to us once they are adults.
I know parents who seemed perfect -- who ARE great people, who did it right -- whose kids are extremely damaged. And fantastic grown-up kids with integrity and humor whose parents were scary, abusive, nonexistent.

She talks about focusing on the things that she knows she did right instead of driving herself crazy over the things she may have done wrong. Later she says:

So -- I kind of think it is a miracle that motherhood didn't do even deeper damage to my life and psyche. Also, both of us are alive; many of his friends and my friends didn't make it. Some days I think that as Dylan sang in "Idiot Wind," it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves. Some days just thinking of my son, I could still die of love for him.
 I've bolded the part that was the most striking to me. I paused when I read it. Then I re-read it and paused again.

Aside from the physical birthing part, we very rarely talk about motherhood as damaging. In fact, we tend to talk about it as restorative, even life-affirming. After my pauses, I kept reading, and when I got to the part about dying of love for him, I decided I understood.

I know I'm saying nothing new when I say that being a parent washes you in love in a way that you've never known. Time and time again, people say of their children, "I loved you the moment I saw you." Sure, it's cliche, but for a reason. It's true. The love is intense and primal. Free from logic, equivocation, and the time it normally takes to determine that a relationship is that important to you. It's truly amazing.

But of course, there's a flip side, and I think that's where the idea that motherhood can be damaging comes in. If you give someone that much of yourself, you are completely unequipped to deflect the pain of disappointment. If that child you love so much gets hurt, you will hurt, too. If that child you love so much becomes an adult who makes bad decisions, you can try all you want to depersonalize it and reason through, but that love has left a void that makes you vulnerable.

And as much as we want parenthood to magically change us into perfect beings who do no wrong, it doesn't. As Lamott says in her interview that she came "to motherhood SO screwed up myself -- by my parents, by this world, by the institutionalized contempt for mothers." And, of course, to varying degrees, we all have. Because the role feels so intense, we turn every bump in the road back onto ourselves, back onto those insecurities, back onto that imperfection. And we wonder. Did I do this? Could I have prevented it?

Maybe that's why the mommy wars are so pervasive and start so early. How dare you start your child on solids at 4 months! How could you possibly let her sleep in your bed! How could you not let her sleep in your bed! If you don't breastfeed him, you're a failure! If you had a c-section, you didn't try hard enough! And on, and on, and on. Sometimes it's enough to make you want to shut yourself off from the judging world, left only to judge yourself.

But Lamott ends on a positive call for community:

you do the best you can and you try to be nicer to yourself about the past, including that very morning; and most important, you talk as often as possible to the smartest, funniest, most REAL mothers you know. Otherwise, without other mothers, we are completely doomed.
And maybe we can all live a little less damaged.

1 comment:

  1. Even as I grew up and just assumed I would have kids, I was afraid I wouldn't love them. I suppose that was indicative of what I now know and accept: I am not mother material and I was not meant to have kids. I still think that there must be mothers out there who don't have this "magical love" turn on when they give birth. It seems like we categorize them as having a mental illness, namely post-pardum (sp?) depression. I can't help but feel bad for them because I'm sure there aren't many forums or outlets for them to share or get support. Do you suppose motherhood could be like an arranged marriage? That the love could develop over time?

    Incidentally, I was going to use Operating Instructions in my Nonfiction class in the fall, but it got cancelled. I haven't actually read it yet, and I am not at all disappointed by not having to teach, but I hope to get to reading it someday. --Jen Stebick