Motherhood for Amateurs

I wrote this last year for the San Mateo Mothers’ Club for their Mother’s Day issue, and still very much stand by it:

I had to ease into motherhood. It did not come naturally to me. I did not have the mothering instinct I was supposed to have to know how to breastfeed my son or take care of an infant. In any other type of circumstance being a newbie and learning the ropes would be expected, but I had somehow adopted this pervasive idea that I would know how to mother and that I would be good at it. Of course for me this was completely ridiculous. I had never been around infants or children much prior to this.

So, I turned to the experts, the parenting books, and the articles for the answers. I followed the rules. I read all those articles that began with “Studies show…” and tried to adopt all the various findings all at once (much to my confusion). I tried out various methods but most of them made me feel like an automaton robot, like I wasn’t behaving in a way that was natural to me and that I was expecting the same from my son. And yet I would think, well, these are the experts, they must know more what they’re doing than I am.

I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning after a friend mentioned him. Frankl was a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who lived through Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In his book he talks about what of life mattered to him after having so much stripped away and living so close to death in places like Auschwitz. Unlike a parenting book that focused so much on the rules and controlling behavior of children, this focused on the big picture.

A large part of my struggle as a mom came from my decision to stay at home with my son. I felt guilt about this all the time. Did I not Lean In enough? Was I letting down the feminists? Was I setting myself up for a bad future if something were to happen to my husband? The big looming question that was always on my mind was, Did I make the right decision? There was first and foremost the loss of identity as I moved into this role, also the loneliness and isolation that often comes with being a new mom, but I had the hardest time with the lack of respect I felt from some people in my life. And this surprised me. I was still essentially the same person, why did this decision to stay at home make me somehow suddenly less-than in some people’s eyes? Was their judgment of me some kind of essential truth because at times my day-to-day life felt so small and like I wasn’t doing something big or important to change the world?

 One of the things Frankl talked about was about how we rob others of their dignity when we measure them by their “usefulness.” He writes, “But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful…It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”

I’ve thought more about this idea of “useful,” how arbitrary it is and how whether someone falls into this or not can sometimes have to do with what society currently values, how a useful person does not necessarily mean that he or she is a decent person, and how most of us, no matter our job, will struggle with how useful our contributions are to society. Frankl believed that we should focus on measuring people by how they conduct themselves in their day-to-day lives and how we use our dignity and grace to get through the hardships that will inevitably follow. I agree too that this is what should give the shape to our lives.

The truth is that I must learn to exist with the questions and the doubt. The truth is that I won’t always make the right decisions. But if I am able to focus on what matters to me and my family, for example, if I am able to focus on the relationship I have with my son, cultivating and teaching him to love and respect others and himself, I may make a few missteps, I may miss out on a few things, I may regret things, but I’ll know that on the whole I moved in the right direction.

I hope that you too on Mother’s Day love the work you are doing with your family, for your personal and intellectual development, and that you honor yourself and the hard work that you do in all aspects of your life.

Starting Again

The thing about blogging is that I started it in college and I gave it up a few years later. I still remember where I would blog, in the living room of that one-bedroom apartment I shared with a close friend, using the dial-up internet and trying to log into Livejournal, hoping the website would be up and not down for maintenance. I remember staying up late drinking coffee, writing those essays I wrote for my English classes, and always slipping away to write some kind of blog post I thought was so clever or cute and most of the time was neither. But I remember that moment because it was probably the moment where writing was the most magical and it sparked something for me. When I thought, “Oh, I would love to do this forever.” No one had to read it and I would do that forever. I still feel that way about writing.

These moments from ten, fifteen years ago, they still feel so strongly to me. It’s not like you get older and you just forget about these things. I know we’re somehow supposed to because we’re supposed to be mature. Maturity seems to be about hardening, pretending that things don’t bother us anymore. We’re supposed to toughen up and solve all our problems by being positive and proactive, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from getting older, it’s that I’ve realized how much softer I feel towards the world because I think life can be so hard. There is a melancholy to life knowing that things will never stay as they are and that we will lose those we love along the way.

The difference between now and then is that now I would claim my space in a way I wouldn’t have done back then. I remember thinking that how many people wanted to be my Livejournal friend would validate my writing. I remember that strain to be so clever. I remember the way I was always waiting around for permission. I never really got that permission, by the way.

These days I am taking a Life and Career Planning class at a local community college with mostly nineteen to twenty-year olds. Nothing makes me feel older than hanging out with nineteen and twenty-year olds. I don’t think they realize how stunningly beautiful they all are, just by their youth, by the bloom on their faces. We’ve taken a lot of different career and personality tests and it’s been good to see my strengths that I have for so long dismissed. Careers don’t have be so awful. They can have a kind of ease to them when you are finally doing the right thing.

Recently, I heard David Whyte speak on the On Being podcast. He spoke to me so I bought his Consolations book. It is lovely. I would put this book in the hands of every person who walked by, and I swear the world would be a kinder place. But I liked what he had to say about genius: “Genius is something we already possess…To live one’s genius is to dwell easily at the crossing point where all the elements of our life and our inheritance join and make a meeting…Our genius is to understand and stand beneath the set of stars present at our birth, and from that place, to seek the hidden, single star, over the night horizon, we did not know we were following.”

I love this idea of genius already residing in all of us and somehow figuring it out. That resonates so much to me with my class and what I’ve been thinking about these days. I would like to use this space to explore ideas like these more. This is a start.