It was the ordinariness of becoming a mother that first struck me with a hot blast of wonder. Women had babies all the time, and yet in the great novels I had read,no one ever talked about the experience of becoming a mother, nor about the sticky details of birthing and nursing. As a person accustomed to research, I found even the most practical information hard to come by. This was in 1966,and I had to send off to France for a book about the new Lamaze method of childbirth. Because of the popularity of bottles, even the informal lore of breastfeeding, handed down from older to younger women, had been lost. It seemed I had landed at the center of human life and, surprisingly, found myself alone, engulfed in an inchoate and banal silence. How bewildering that a process as grand and scary and tedious as becoming a mother should be so unremarkable, literally not worthy of remark.
I myself was adrift in immaturity, about as unformed and malleable as my own small baby, who, I was now genuinely startled to discover, needed my intense concentration. Before he was born, the fetal David was a rosy abstraction in a blithely comfortable pregnancy. I glowed, I thrived, I brushed aside the cautionary tales. Not until I saw Rosemary’s Baby much later did I consciously recognize the dark side there all along—the baby as parasite, the sinister “other” placed within the soul self by strange and alien powers, the invasive fetus vanquishing the helpless mother. This is not merely the baby of horror stories and psychotic nightmares: this is the shadow side of symbiosis.
Truly the infant David overwhelmed me. In his presence I could neither read nor write. Eventually I abandoned my training in philosophy to study instead this small, willful, and physically beautiful person. I had to push away my books and my thoughts so that I could hear his tiny demands. David was the person who made me pay attention to the world outside myself, to boiled eggs and washed sheets and flirty babies.
In remembering the early days of motherhood, I feel again that first shock of my own responsibility for this tiny, fragile person, the clear and compelling demand that I harden into a self, a definite persona, that I come out of the mists of graduate study. Because we stubbornly identify with the helpless infants, we human beings find it hard to accept the frail and tenuous humanity of the mother. We easily and sentimentally resonate to the emotional nurturance that we as infants need from mothers. Our infant selves are masters of longing, and masters too in imagining the mother’s unlimited strength and unlimited supply of love. The mother soon learns what is required to support the life ofher child. Then she just does it. Whatever she thinks the child needs, that’s what she does.
Specifically, the mother’s motivation arises from her discovery of a terrible truth: she must keep and hold someone who is perilously fragile in a world now suddenly filled with danger. This demand—the demand to preserve—is so clear and so penetrating that it forces even the most philosophical among us to abandon our relativism and shuck off our existential blues.
It was the bald inescapability of my new identity that shocked me the most, sometimes making me proud of myself, sometimes guilty and confused, sometimes just exhausted. But of course I had to stay in my role: my baby held me as I held him. Until Then, I had never been so located in time and space.
The relationship with the baby is startlingly intimate, beginning with the privacy of the nursing relationship and continuing ad nauseam into all the untidy details of baby bodies. There is, of course, excrement in an amazing variety of textures, colors, and odors, all necessarily subject to the intense scrutiny of the mother, a sort of high-priestess of fecal matter. But there is also drool, milky spit, vomit, nose runs, boogers, ear wax, blood, urine—every drop and smear of which someone must wipe away, clean up, and wash off. The mother must develop a kind of hardiness to face the flow of human juices, and a forgiveness too. She learns to say, “It’s all right,” and comes to accept the body, its impolite realness, its frailty, its pleasures. The sly and secret delight of mothers, if I may speak for all of us, is baby buns—smooth, lusciously curved, actually tauter and tinier than the diaper would have you believe. The baby is such a sensualist that the mother must quickly learn the language of holding and stroking.
By the time Rebecca was born, over three years later, David had slowly trained me into a fairly sociable, level-headed citizen, less likely to drift airily around our tiny apartment like a balloon losing its helium. Consequently, Rebecca and I recognized each other as soon as the nurse handed her to me. Thanks to David, I knew then how to dampen my anxiety in the face of her howls of indignation, and I knew too the companionate pleasures of rocking idly with a soft baby in the empty spaces of the night.
Sara Ruddick has written of the disorienting experience of caring for a growing baby “whose acts are irregular, unpredictable, often mysterious. . . . In order to understand her child,” Ruddick concludes, the mother “must assume the existence of a conscious continuing person whose acts make sense in terms of perceptions and responses to a meaning-filled world.” A mother “assumes the priority of personhood overaction.” The foundation of the special mode of perception which Ruddick calls “maternal thinking” is an unquestioning belief in the continuity of the child-self despite enormous changes and even contradictory phenomena.
The illusion of a constant self is great: one long, loopy afternoon, when David was three years old and Rebecca still growing inside me, I tended my own and my sister’s children. Suddenly, I was torn open with grief merely watching my young nephew toddle down the hallway stalking the voices of his older cousins and siblings. He wore David’s recently cast-off blue suit, one that I had made, and viewed from the back, with the sailor hat on his head, he was for me the two-year old David come again. The surprise was that I had not known that that person was gone until he magically reappeared.
So there is a bittersweet paradox at the heart of maternal thinking. The mother aches for her child’s growth, but the growth is double-stranded with her joy and grief. In the baby’s cupholding, the mother thrills at his growing skills—at his intelligence, at his demonstration of his capacity to survive without her. At the same time, she must prepare to leave behind the cozy and intimate warmth of the baby at her breast. The mother’s rock-bottom interest in fostering the child’s growth sets her up for the continual experience of separation.
But the most extraordinary demand that infant David made of me as the demand for a resolute good humor. It somehow went without saying that anything negative about myself would be bad for my child—if I threw dishes or sank inconsolably depressed on the couch or growled and cursed at the vacuum cleaner, not to mention growling and cursing at David himself. I had always been a shy, mild sort of person, but as a mother I experienced for the first time my own capacity to be a difficult, even toxic and possibly destructive force. Imanaged daily to be of good cheer, but did not like the feelings that threatened to surface when I was tired or confused.
The first scary hint I ever had of real rage in myself was one long, hot, exhausting summer afternoon when the toddler David would go down for a nap. After I had tiptoed out of his room for the fourth or fifth time, he cried awake again and to my eternal dismay I found myself struggling with the evil impulse to shake him really hard. To protect David, I did not return at once to his room, and so the two of us cried in frustration, David in his crib and me in the kitchen. Once, years later, I lost my temper with David, and my outrage escalated so rapidly that again I found myself perilously close to harming him, and at the last minute kicked the door instead. The door was cracked forever after, and I never repaired it so that I would never forget. If we lived there still, I would repair the door now, as a ritual of the mending between the two of us.
But mostly I found myself cheerily, patiently, doggedly pursuing the tedious details of the day, at my worst like some unctuous mast of ceremonies for mytiny and captive audience. “Okay,” I would announce to a rapt but two-month-old David, as we strolled down the supermarket aisle, "let's look for the tomatoes!” At my best I was sweet and low-keyed and optimistic—the kind of sunny outlook that reflected David’s demand for someone to instill in him a fundamental trust and interest in life itself. I felt it my duty to point out things: “There’s a cow!” “See Daddy?” and even, “Where’s David? There he is!” I would talk seductively or pretend to gobble up his foot or I would cover my face with his blanket and peek out at him, until to my amazement he slowly organized his responses, first arching his back, later squirming in delight, finally singing back at me.
This is the sort of stuff people love to hear about mothers, their delight in their children, their boundless energy, their unending fascination with the simple details of little bodies and daily routines. I like to hear it too. But like all simplifications, it has its cost. What is the mother to do with her cynicism, her irony, her urge to throw the dinner plates against the fence posts?
Instead the mother constructs a world that is benign and uncomplicated, as bland and digestible as baby food itself. And as she does, she finds herself tuning into the simple shapes and rhythms of living: coming and going, big and little, time for this and time for that, a space for everything. It’s a Richard Scarry world, where the happy baker waves hello to the happy mailman, the postal truck is marked “US Mail” the baker window announces “Bakery,” and flowers bloom in the window box. Everything is labeled. I love this world, its industry, its relentless sunshine, its illusory security. Turning the pages of our book, sometimes I needed to believe its truth as much as the toddler on my lap did, feeling always my own longing for a world in which my child could grow up safely. I was saving the stories about automobile accidents and war and horrible diseases for later.
For both the mother and the infant, the tension between growing up and keeping safe is sometime complementary, sometimes opposing. The toddler comes and goes, tumbling back into the lap of the comforting mother when he has stretched his fears too far. The mother fears as well, sometimes experiencing the child’s own curiosity as the enemy to a safe life.
It seemed I sat forever on shady lawns, watching David in the sandbox and Rebecca on the blanket, the first of our line of cats stalking the fence of trumpet vines. The effort to be watchful was at times overwhelming for me, my eyes glazing over, my own stuperous emptiness such a bald experience that it seemed to constitute a kind of neglect. I could become a parody of caretaking, or worse, a sort of ghost-mother, out of whose bones the children arose, like mushrooms on a soft rotting log. When we at last bought our first television set, I found myself pausing beside David as, legs out, mouth open, he watched the gray screen. Both of us were nodding our heads to Mr. Rogers’ comforting balm, “You are so special.” How much I needed to hear that myself.
Our family did most of its growing up in a little house on an ivied street rightoutside Philadelphia, where we shared the peculiarly interlocking lives of four busy people and one lone bathroom. As the children’s range now took in front porches and sidewalks, then whole blocks, and at last the corner store and the elementary school a short walk away, we evolved a different kind of symbiosis. I could not hold hem or pat bottoms so cavalierly, and they no longer fell asleep on my shoulder in the dark drive home from movies. As they launched themselves out, we learned to keep each other in our hearts, the kids down the block, me across town at the university. Sometimes I did not even know what they were eating.
When school days came, it seemed we were always madly preparing for the next day, a fictitious time when we would be “caught up”, in contrast to the uncontained hysteria of today. To sit on a lawn now seemed the rarest of luxuries. In its breathless busyness, the family was then like some gangly machine, a relentless contraption with the cycles and epicycles set long ago and now lurching along according to its predetermined plan. In the maw of the machine, I struggled with fears of engulfment and, contrariwise, fears of an unknown name, the anger of someone cast into the role of Prime Mover, without whole energy the universe would grind to a halt. I knew it must all make sense, but who had the space on the kitchen table to sit down and figure it out? Often it seemed to me I risked confusing my kids with their laundry, that I spent most of my “quality” time corralling t-shirts and socks, driving them downstairs toward the laundry room, herding the stock from one machine to another, culling the dried clothes into baskets that sat around until our naked desperation made me sort and fold the contents.
In someways it got easier as the kids grew older: we were lucky, there were no big disasters. But it got more complicated too, because the very helplessness of the infant makes the mother’s job clear. But an eight-year old! Messy hair—who combs it? Mosquitoes—who sprays the Cutters? Since when did I become the nag representing order and civilization? It seemed that without me they would have eaten standing in the kitchen, wandering through the house, and most disastrously, plopped in front of the TV set. When did I become the vigilante for such trivia—grease on the sofa, shoes in the living room, wet towels on the rug? In the school years, the issues about discipline and doing things right mounted and mounted, and what I saw demanded of me was even more strength and indefatigable practicality.
Often I felt dumber than dirt. Could Rebecca spend TWO nights in a row sleeping over at friends? “Duh, I dunno, gee, I have to think about that, duh.” How could a person who wrote about Wittgenstein have a brain that just folded in on itself like that, pummeled by an eight-year old’s torturous pleas? My guts said, keep her home, but why? Isn’t this just a tad over-involved? Why not give in? Indeed, why not just let her drift from house to house on the block, eating white bread, wearing dirty borrowed clothes, while I…I…get a massage! Wade in the surf, high-heeled shoes tossed on the beach! Not brave or selfish enough to head for the beach, instead, pestered and squinty-eyed, I was forced to think about our rules, think about reasons, make decisions, revise decisions, change my mind, hold fast, explain, insist, give up, clamp down.
Because of this persistent centrality, the mother is the object, the bull’s eye, of her children’s feeling, some of which could stun an ox. She is intensely loved, hates, seized, ignored. I was thunderstruck by the blunt distortions my children made of my motives, and then at other times struck by their keen accuracy. In writing this, it occurs to me that they might say the same of me.
The children grew like kudzu, changing so fast that I struggled always with mothering by hindsight, barely sizing up one situation as the child metamorphosed into another. I could not shake the anxiety that my faults were magnified in my children’s character. As I watched them grow it seemed inescapable to me that their own struggles were the fruit of my inadequacies as a human being. At my worst I found myself growing more anxious as a mother, my heart so helplessly tied to my children’s growth their blooming became what I demanded for my own survival as well. Be happy or I grieve. What a strange demand.
Once, a teacher spoke to me with disgust curling off her lip about how angry and helpless she felt with David, whose work then did not match his brightness. I was so numb with guilt and hurt that I stumbled away from the school, leaving behind another meeting I was to attend forgot my car and walked distractedly home.
I can actually remember the first time I felt my maternal anxiety lift a little and drift to one side, and I took a good breath. Charles had brought us to Rose River in the Shenandoah Valley to backpack for the first time. Unimpressed, I had trudged along on the hike up, had dutifully organized our site, had worried about animals, had risen with Charles in the night’s drizzle to string tarps over our bare sleeping bags. The next day I sat by a rocky creek watching David and Rebecca and Charles make great Errol Flynn leaps across the boulders above. I should have been afraid for them, but instead I munched a chocolate bar and admired my children’s easy grace, their springy legs, their banter with their father. The rain came again, harder, and we left early, hiking down the mountain in a downpour, only my feet dry in new boots, but the kids chirped along like hearty crickets and my heart was luminously happy at the vision of the family I had seen.
I learned from this and other moments that my own pleasure in the children was vital, that my capacity to treasure them should not be taken for granted but had to be cultivated and treasured itself. I later learned a Yiddish word, naches, the swelling heart a parent has for a child’s accomplishments, an experience we did not label so well in my Anglo-Saxon family. I worried less and made more soup and lived for those moments when we were hanging around the dining room table running through our impressive recall of 101 Hamburger Jokes. To place a vase of fever few gathered from the backyard in the center of this table was for me a way to celebrate our own gracious capacity to enjoy each other.
In taking on more celebration, I also put more limits on housework, not always with a clear conscience. The sacrifice of the mother is not only the guilty joke of psychiatry, but also the heart of the family system. The siren call of the mother is Never Enough: she can never do enough, plan enough, love enough, make enough cookies. Whatever she does, it is not soft enough, not tough enough. When I taught my children to use the washing machine themselves, some observers thought this move was smart, and others, no doubt seeing the wrinkled products, thought it was an act of callous neglect. Eventually, I had the wondrous privilege of giving up the housework altogether. When I took the lady from the cleaning service around the house to show her what had to be done, I noticed on my bedside table an empty glass with a comb and a walnut in it, just one of the little vignettes of inexplicable chaos that I was handing over to her, thankfully and with only a little embarrassment.
My transformation into the mother of adolescents was far more dramatic and demanding than I had anticipated: it seemed one day Rebecca was sunny and open and the next day she was dashing through the living room with a face preternaturally bright from rouge and slamming the door on her way out. The tiresome question was whether to let it go, confront her later, or get up to follow her out the door. On these dreary occasions, I hated many of the feelings I had: I hated it when someone was not home when they agreed to be home, I hated worrying about accidents and city psychopaths, I hated seeing college applications languishing under piles of phonograph records, I hated the worries about drugs and alcohol. So I learned to follow Rebecca out the door.
My worry for the adolescent David befitted his position as first child and fit too his growing differences from me, his lengthening and hardening into someone tall, utterly hip, mysteriously masculine. If Gary Cooper were a witty 17-year-old and read Walker Percy and delivered pizzas, that would be David then. I had a secret grief about David, a worry about his school work and a worry too that we were like two boats caught in a squall. Any fights I had with David came to no good, more moods, more misunderstanding. But I watched in amazement as he and Charles fought: stormy scenes with a fine sun coming out afterwards, the two of them closer than before.
My identification with David was so complete that I rejoiced to see him happy with his father and felt only the barest whiff of jealousy that he did not respond that way with me. When the Phillies headed toward the World Series, we all waxed rapturous in our family, but it was clear that the two tickets for the big game should go to David and Charles. It was for me the purest pleasure to stay home that afternoon, imagining thetwo of them making their way on the subway, swarming in with the happy crowds, sitting in the stands watching larger-than-life baseball.
The intensity in a home with adolescents is startling, and I am not speaking here merely of the jacked-up emotionality of adolescents or their ballyhooed rebellion, but of the kind of intensity that the parents themselves must bring to the experience: the capacity to be angry, to confront sexual issues—including one’s own—and the capacity to fight for trust and respect. So when Rebecca asked me not to observe in her classroom on Parents’ Day, at first I said weakly, “Well, if that’s what you want,” a little miffed, and then something clicked and I said “Hell, no. I’m your mother! I’m interested in your classes.” Not only was I coming but when I came in, I would appreciate a gracious greeting from you—which on the day she smilingly gave me, and I smiled back, and we had a fine time.
I wanted to be as powerful a mother as possible, stubborn and feisty if necessary, an opinionated debater, a force, a serious woman. In struggling to leave behind the Madonna-mother role, I was motivated not only by my own inner needs, but also by a longing that my children see me as a real person, and a belief that their development as well as mine depended on it. How else could they trust me with their confusion unless I was strong?
It seemed to me that the person in my family to whom my own development mattered most was the teenage Rebecca. I had always admired Rebecca with a mother’s ready admiration for sweet youth itself: her clear peachy skin, her demure smile, her tender sympathies. Butwhen Rebecca became convinced her body was ugly, I found that it did no good to reassure her sweetly that she was attractive. Instead, I learned to fight with her, sometimes on the soapbox, ranting about Twiggy and Jane Fonda and Kim Chernin, sometimes yelling at her when she complained that a perfectly molded thigh was somehow “too big”. Finally, whenever she had doubts, she would come to me, serious and trusting:
“How do I look? Truthfully!”
“You look wonderful. The truth.”
She took me in through fighting.
So the shift for me was from the accommodating, observing mother of infants to the kind of lively, interesting, kickass parent that adolescents need. My marriage became lively and interesting as well: in helping each child to resolve ambivalence about the other parent, we were also forced to settle our own massive ambivalence. Charles and I never played half-court basketball with our children, but it seems that for both of us it was like that: good tracking, swift darts and changes, sweat and worry, great jokes, heart-breaking misses, angry discussions about the rules.
Of course, you’d have to imagine that after a while the bleachers started to fill up with observers, people commenting on the players, speculating who was good stuff or not. Teachers, admissions officers, neighbors, owners of businesses, your own friends! Tillie Olsen’s brilliant and raspy monologue, “I Stand Here Ironing,” always touches my sympathy and my anger. In is a mother’s sharp reaction to a telephone call to come for a meeting about her school child: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moved tormented back and forth with the iron.” That’s the kind of raw emotion a person feels before the world court of opinion, which every mother feels. The worry of the mother is not just that she feels judged too, although that happens inevitably, nor that she is disappointed in her children. The real worry of the mother is that the world court is so often wrong, so often smug, naming and sizing a child’s soul so that the name itself is taken for the thing. Olsen’s mother’s pleas to the school teacher is to help her daughter believe she is “more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
I knew I had matured as a mother when I could listen to other people’s questioning opinions of my children without crumpling inside with guilt and helplessness. As the kids revealed more and more of who they were deciding to be—making decisions about politics and clothes and friends—it dawned on me that my own children were becoming some of the most interesting people that I knew.
I had my first out-of-body experience when 16-year-old Rebecca flew to Cyprus for a month. She was by all appearances a solo traveler, but the physical distance she traveled was so palpable that I leapt the space anyway, staying awake all that night arcing across the black Atlantic, getting a little fuzzy for the London stop-over, but reconstituting my presence well enough to make the final leg into Larnaca, my mother’s intensity paralyzing any terrorists that might have been on board. When we got the call that she was safely in Nicosia, I was content that I had done my job well and settled down happily to my reading—Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, histories of the Mediterranean, whatever would help me experience the new worlds of a faraway daughter.
This process has not been easy, this launching of my children into space. In the middle-class family, the infants enter the family as if coming into a room which they then leave years later, by another door. It is this entering and exiting which has most vividly helped me measure the experience of mothering. I entered too, but do not exit. My fear in watching the last kid leave was that a door would close, and I did not know then, although I do know now, whether our lives would continue to carry such rich meaning for each other.
This last May I flew down to Austin to launch David off to Brazil for three months, as far into exotica as his earnings would take him. We had lunch with his Portuguese professor and wife, a Brazilian couple whose excitement about David’s journey made my own anxiety at least tolerable. We ran errands and made his tiny apartment shipshape; inevitably I had to reorganize the furniture. I came across a life-size cardboard figure of Indiana Jones in the grocery store, and the manager let me take it after I explained that my son was leaving for the Amazon. We propped it up amid the rearranged furniture, Indy giving a farewell wave of the whip. We talked a lot. I thought, as I often have, how kind, how funny, how artfully wise David is, how much I love his ironic dash and verve, his Thomas Jefferson poster falling off the way, his cheap and tasteful cotton shirts. I made him promise to call us often in the beginning, knowing by now that all I need are some reports from the scene, some details of that particular reality, even if it is words about theft and diseases and political unrest, no matter, its incantation of a real place holds me securely.
Spring, 1988 was Rebecca’s last time at home before she too went off to college. That May, during my daily walks along the Wissahickon Creek, I found myself admiring the dogs accompanying their walkers. How nice it would be, I imagined, to get a dog someday. Maybe in the next year. The dog and I would exercise together up and back Forbidden Drive to Valley Green. She would bound along enthusiastically the way young dogs do. I would be the conscientious owner, careful to train the dog thoroughly and consistently—a reader of dog books, a builder of dog runs, a groomer of dog coats.
It was with a sad shock that I realized the true source of these fancies. One day while reading a short story, I heard one character tell her fictional lover “Pets are only child substitutes.” At that moment, I understood that my happy-dog fantasy was a cover for the decidedly bittersweet departure of Rebecca at the end of the month.
Part of the fantasy was clearly to do a better job with the dog than I was sometimes able to do with Rebecca, who, as the young daughter of an overworked doctoral student, had too often bounded off to school with hair that needed cutting and socks that needed matching. But the truth is, I had to admit, I could never focus on haircuts and socks for long. They were not all that interesting. I groomed Rebecca in other ways. When she had a headache, I tranquilized her with hypnosis and together we made the pain shrink and disappear. I taught her how to write with good, blunt, Anglo-Saxon words instead of long, dopey Latin ones. Driving the long route across the river to her new school, we talked of Carol Gilligan. I fought the dark angel in her that would convince her to hate her own body. And always, I insisted that she take herself seriously.
I walked along Forbidden Drive thinking of all the wise and memorable things I still wanted to teach Rebecca: Travel abroad whenever you can. Learn the names of wild flowers. Watch out for the big trucks and tanks. Talk to you teachers. Did I tell her well enough how afraid I am of nuclear war? My neglect was so vast, it made my teeth ache. But I did not remember to say it all, and we were caught in time’s implacable grind. Before us was a slant of light, an open door. There was no shutting it out. Our life together was measured then in weeks. My physical grief was bound only by the thrill of watching my last child step into the glare of a vast and uneasy world.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 1989 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.
Molly Layton, PhD, is in private practice. She is also acting vice principal for the Lower School of Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.