Filling the Spaces

One of the unexpected journeys in the process of separation is reorganization. Not just reconfiguration of stuff, but of ideas and intention and meaning.

A third of the furniture goes, a quarter of the closets empty, much of the cupboards’ contents thin…there’s more space. And in those spaces there’s a lot of unearthed treasure. It’s as though the furniture has been emptied, unbolted from the wall, and moved to the center of the room. Now I get to put everything back together a different way and collect the little treasures that fell into the gaps years ago. Pennies, dust, LEGO wheels, and a long-lost photograph all reward my efforts at fixing what doesn’t feel right.

Since the house has less in it, I’ve realized what I do and don’t use, what is and isn’t important, where I do and don’t feel comfortable. Connection to what feels right waxes and wanes; excitement over exploring the spaces I find and sense of home I create is ephemeral. While the boys are awake, the house is full of life and noise and life. And it’s just right and too much all at the same time. While I work the house fades away and I’m in a known, safe place playing to my skills. When there’s no work and no children, I’m puzzled by the lack of flow around me. The books are in the wrong places and I need to reorganize. The bed drawers stick and I’m suddenly just enraged that I don’t have a dresser. I buy one and build it and feel triumphant, trying to create a new space that is all mine and fits just right. Then, in settling into the newness, I notice something else that is all wrong and needs a good reconfiguring.

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The roller coaster in and out of discomfort isn’t about stuff, of course. It’s not a function of dresser or lack of dresser. The issue is not that few of the projects boxed in the garage are ever going to see the light of day, nor is the real problem that I don’t even know how to begin purging those old projects.

The sense of unease comes from not knowing which parts of my life to keep. Do I want to be more of the old me, the person from before the marriage? Am I some of those parts plus other facets I shaped with my husband and with my kids? Have I completely shed the pre-Spouse self and now need to crawl out of the marital shell as a completely new person? That’s a lot of pressure to metamorphose. Am I what I choose now to keep and what I ditch? Do I have to define myself right now, today, or can I actually give myself some time, try things out, explore and evaluate? Is unknowing exploration a quality only of youth, or am I allowed some leeway? If I buy a new dresser because the organization in my room is genuinely dreadful and not working for me, and I get gorgeous unfinished pine and paint it in glorious ways as a way to feel I own all my life changes, then I decide I hate it, can I just Craigslist my transition self and get a new one?

At least three friends are in the midst of the seeking, the sorting, the excavation; one is upset about the physical mess of splitting two merged lives into two separate lives.

The good and bad news is you can’t sort out who you are in an afternoon. Or a weekend. Or a month. You have to sit in the mess for a while. Parts of your house’s going to be a disaster as long as your heart, your head, and your life is a disaster. But in that disorganized clutter is a whole mess of opportunity.

This process isn’t like splitting a pizza dough recipe. There is no simple, William Sonoma tool for cleaving a family into two tidy sections. Not even in the annual parody.

But the messiness is an unexpected benefit of this process. Space to make changes, space to reevaluate, belongings dumped in a heap and begging to be evaluated. What’s working? What’s not? What do I need? Who I am?

In the empty and messy spaces, there is opportunity for new and opportunity for do-over. I don’t have to fill all the spaces right now. Or ever. I could leave them alone for a while. Wipe them clean and fill them with different ideas. Or shift endlessly. Consolidate and decorate and ponder. Try something and see how it goes. Put everything in boxes in the garage and donate them next year if I still don’t need them.

I’m excited to see what I find during the excavation, and how I fill or retain the spaces as I come across them. I can’t wait to sweep out the corners of my life I haven’t seen in years but that I’m slowing down to examine lately.

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Low Expectations Holiday Gathering

‘Tis the time of the year for my annual celebration of hosting mediocrity.

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The invitations went out. By email. With no reminder two days before.

This is your casual, heartfelt, and festive but unadorned invitation
to our annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. Come to our house for a
minor-key gathering of joy, adoration, and minimal preparation as we
begin the seasons of Too Much to Do and Too Little Time.

Cheer with us an ambivalent welcome to Hanukkah, Winter Solstice,
Christmas, Kwanzaa, and any other cultural eating and drinking holiday you
embrace.

With music!

Come as you are, with your favorite minimal-prep-time food or drink.
We will be here, without any promises to clean or decorate, but with
warm exclamations of how much we cherish you in our lives.

Guaranteed to be unassuming, but not underwhelming.

RSVP so we know how big a pot of apple cider we need to leave
simmering until you get here.

The day before the party I bought some cheese. I’m not gonna lie: it was good cheese. The kids were fighting and I offered threats and bribes in equal measure so I could select a triple-cream brie, petite basque, herbed goat cheese, and salty mountain gruyere. Later I ate the gruyere and had to serve a cheddar/parmesan blend.

I cleaned the bathroom. Then went for a run.

A few minutes before the party was supposed to begin I surveyed the Martha Stewart scene I had created.

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Microwave covered in crap: check.

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Mantle undusted and still home to a Lego piece, Pokemon card, and related detritus I have no home for: got it.

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Decorative gourds still on the porch two holidays too late: handled.

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Wax-covered menorah ready for next week and almost hiding random Halloween gift bag I’m too lazy too move: check.

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Lots of crap shoved in a closet: nailed it.

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Bag nobody uses and box of important projects crammed under antique seating: perfect.

I knew then that we were ready to underwhelm.

I think we exceeded expectations, actually. Hard to disappoint when you promise fair to middling.

I’ll admit it: I moved the candy corn bag off the table. Because good cheese deserves better than that. But I didn’t move the cat toy.

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Or the spider ring and backpack tableau. Yes, seriously. So little effort required and so little given.

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Paul Simon agrees with us

Appropos of yesterday’s post, Peanut today put in a Paul Simon CD to which I sang along. With gusto.

“Well that was your mother
And that was your father
Before you wuz born, dude
When life was great.
Now you are the burden
Of my generation
I sure do love you
Let’s get that straight.”

Oh, my dear Mr. Simon. Why did I not *hear* you before?

Et toi!

Still ambivalent after all these years

Simon and Garfunkel sang that, didn’t they? Before the crazy version, there was being stuck between a rock and a sheer-faced cliff? Thought so.

Since the inception of this blog, I have wrestled publicly with the dilemma that I love my child and rather dislike parenting. Love, love, love the kid. Don’t get me wrong or send angry emails. Love the child. Dislike the job. It’s not a popular riff, and it’s not often said, so I feel like I’m talking to a (rather horrified) brick wall when I explain to people who ask, that I’m experiencing a range of emotions about being a breeder (ooops, there’s my problem right there, because Americans know the correct answers are “Fine” to “How are you?” and “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done” to “How do you like being a Mom?” regardless of how you feel. But I always forget that social rule and actually hear, process, and answer questions as they’re posed. Silly, poorly socialized me.)

So when someone the other day asked if I was excited about the new baby, my initial response was typical for me, caught between the headlights of social expectations and my still unabashed tendency toward truth:

Blink. Blink. Blink.

Don’t make me say the obvious: of courseyes and nosort ofI think soabsolutely…blink blink blink. Here’s the thing, at least for me. The dive into parenthood, at least the first time, is like asking a solitary, heliophilic (lover of sunshine, not bleeder, though that might work, too), claustrophic acrophobe (nasty fear of heights…bear with me) to live the remainder of their life as a bat.

YES, there are beautiful sights to take in while you’re flying. Glorious smells and sounds and vistas unknown to humans. At…uhem…night. In the sky. Kind of high. Admittedly, there is awesome fruit to be had. A thousand times, yes, I love mangoes. Back at home, though, my small, cramped cave is filled with lots of smelly others who insist I hang upside down from the ceiling and avoid the sun. So admitting having mixed feelings seems less revolutionary than honest and, well, mandatory.

The whole foreign country/alien planet thing I’ve heard from other moms about the upending shock of plunging from independence and coherence into the unblinking and rapid-fire world of parenting implies that the surroundings have changed. Nay. Same place. I’m just living upside down. At night. By new rules with new people whom I simply don’t get. Their way is totally right for them, and it makes sense, and it’s quite lovely. But it’s godawful uncomfortable for me.

And the thought of doing it again really, really soon means less shock and more…upside down, claustrophobic, ceiling-clinging, guano-filled days. I know where to find the fun, but I don’t know how to escape when the not-so-fun threatens to overwhelm. Because you know what? (And I risk being a bit overdramatic here, but I defy you to prove me wrong….) there is no escape.

[Maybe that’s why our culture makes such a big deal about bats. It’s not the three out of, like 400 species of otherwise frugivorous bats who drink blood. It’s the fact that we know, deep down, that I’m totally awesome at similies and metaphors, and that a lot of us are living, at once by choice and against our will, in caves filled with other upside down mammals.]

So I’m learning and I’m flying and I’m having copious amounts of fun. But home isn’t home…it’s claustrophobic and smelly. And going outside is different and new and overwhelming. That sense of displacement, of not just where did I go? but where did the world go? is a little disconcerting.

Once or twice. AND twice.

Consider that next time I just stare at you and blink blink. Blink.

Blink.

Dr. Jekyl and Ms. Hyde

Today’s installment of awesome mom/terrible mom:

Peanut: Mommy, get this damned thing out of my way!
Me: Well, you put that damned thing there, so you move it out of your own damned way.
P: Oh. Yeah. [moves the damned thing and goes about his business.]

My New Year’s resolutions were going to be to let him handle more himself and to swear more. Looks like I have both covered.

Mothering and ambivalence; a book review, sort of

I wrote a post a few months ago about feeling torn between intense love of my child and hallucination-provoking frustration of full time motherhood. I felt emboldened that my feelings were neither unique nor damning after reading Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood. But tonight I was reading What Mothers Do by Naomi Standlen and felt temporarily shamed for those feelings. Give me a minute and I’ll explain what made me re-examine my feelings and conclusions about how experiencing both sides of the spectrum is normal and honest, then the reasons I reject Standlen’s conclusions about the inherent selfishness and destructiveness of ambivalence. (Don’t blink…that was the summary. Save yourself some time and re-read that sentence and go on with your life.)

In examining the writings of mothers (Adrienne Rich, Rachel Cusk, Kate Figes, Rozsika Parker, Jane Lazarre, and Susan Johnson) who address their maternal ambivalence by name, Standlen asks, “Are we talking about a group of women who have picked up a sophisticated psychoanalytic concept—ambivalence—to dress up the fact that they are all so self-centered? Are they too selfish to be loving mothers?”( 202-3) Rather harsh, I think, as a description of women who are giving everything they have to mother their children because that’s what they believe the children need.

In her wording, though,  and her background as a psychoanalyst, we can understand Standlen’s tone. Ambivalence for Freudians is very technically a love/hate polarity that revolves around the same source (here, the child). But for the writers she mentions, ambivalence is a much less rigid term, meaning only existing at two levels, two valences. It doesn’t necessarily mean polar opposites. Standlen explores, for several pages (196-98, et al.), statements from writers about how they get frustrated or angry or resentful about their babies. I’ve only read the full text of half the books she quotes, but none of them talk about hate when I read them. They talk about feeling conflicted because they are angry and frustrated and resentful while being in love. While caring so deeply they sacrifice sleep and health and sanity for a small creature. And that feels difficult and awkward and not at all something glorified. But certainly something real and therefore valid.

Further distancing their mothering multivalences from Standlen’s Freudian definition of ambivalence, the authors in question seem to hint that the contradictory feelings arise from difference sources. Maushart explains pretty clearly that love for the child and hate for the job of full time mothering are daily and hourly occurrences, but that distaste for the job doesn’t mean lack of love for the child (nor that true, deep, unflinching love for the child means lack of frustration with the unceasing work of parenting).

Standlen argues that a baby raised by an ambivalent parent with have an adult-sized case of PTSD. (210-12). A mother who loves you and hates you, she asserts, is like a capricious god who terrifies then patronizes then rewards then punishes. Mothers who get angry and yell at their children apologize, she says. Ambivalent mothers, she argues, yell or withdraw because they think it’s an okay way to parent. And happy chldren are obviously loved, while shy children who don’t warm quickly to strangers are clearly experiencing some ambivalence damage at home.

What twisted, monster version of moms do you see in your practice, Ms. Standlen? Sure, unconditional, patient, flawless love (which she calls wholehearted love) is “more straightforward.” My love is wholehearted, madam, and I hate not having one minute of peace to myself.  My love is wholehearted, and I hate the way I feel each day because I choose to sacrifice my sleep to give my child what he needs. And after comforting him gently 12 and 15 times a night when he’s teething or sick or scared, I want to throw him against the wall. I don’t do it and never will, but I’m putting that I writing for the whole world to see because it doesn’t make me any less wholehearted in my love. It means I am human and I get angry and I love a person but loathe a circumstance. (As I write this, Peanut is waking from his fourth nightmare of the evening. He has been writhing and talking in his sleep for several minutes, and just screamed. He might be asleep, he might be waking. I’ll know in a minute. If it is the former, my heart will go out to him as long as he is tormented. If it the latter, my body will go to him, as long as he is tormented. By about 2 am, this will get really, freaking old, and I may get angry—not at him, but at the constant interruptions. I’m not angry with him. I’m angry at whatever keeps his sleep cycles from maturing, angry with whatever demons dare disturb his growth and sweetness. And now I’m even more angry with Naomi Standlen for suggesting that I don’t love the little cacahuete.)

I resent Standlen’s assertion that the women who feel conflicted are bad mothers who are harming their children. She spends a lot of time dancing around her belief that working outside the home when you have small children is not ideal, but won’t really hurt children; and that breastfeeding is ideal, but formula really won’t hurt them. So why can’t she not say that being perfect is ideal, but occasional bouts of self-doubt and frustration and anger and longing for something different really won’t hurt children. As long as we learn to take our ambivalence (not love/hate the child but love the child and hate the intense labor pains of making room for them in your life, when the space they need takes up 99.999999999999% of your existence) and channel it in productive ways, why is she spending a whole chapter calling those of us who haven’t found unfettered bliss, selfish and unloving and confusing and frightening?

Standlen notes that most of these authors who express ambivalence are in a similar position: “These mothers don’t sound easy with their moments of hate. All of them are intellectual women, with careers ahead of them….[Julia Darling] found it difficult to be a mother, but she doesn’t mention hatred or the feeling that her babies were making limitless demands on her.” Did she work outside the home? Did she have a caregiver, either professional or familial to help? Because maybe she didn’t feel limitless demands because she got out of the freaking house and had what Virginia Woolf termed a room of her own. Maybe the women to whom you attribute “chilling” ambivalence are surrounded by yellow wallpaper, the likes of which Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew all too well.

Standlen is horrified by several lines from Maushart, but finds this couplet particularly abhorrent: “We harbour no doubts that mothering our children is infinitely worth doing. It’s only that we’d really rather be doing something else.” I don’t need to defend Maushart’s writing. But it is clear from the rest of the text that she means this about moments of the days and weeks. Not about the entirety of mothering. And certainly not about her children. We’d really rather be enjoying 100% of this job, but that’s simply not possible. (If it was, no mother or father would ever plunk their child down in front of the t.v. to get a moment’s peace.)

When Jon, the father on Jon & Kate Plus Eight expressed frustration at all the damned work of parenting (times eight), he said something along the lines of, “I just want to play with my kids. I don’t like doing all the other crap that goes along with this job.” And full-time parents around the country looked around to see if anyone else heard that. What do you think we do all day, my friend? Sunshine and lollipops and imaginary friends and dancing and games and kisses and stories? Yes, plus tantrums and snot and outbursts and teaching and discipline and meals and cleaning up and redirecting and stalemates and poop and cat vomit and negotiating and avoiding tantrums and planning the next three steps so there aren’t more tantrums and yet more tantrums. There is no “playing with your kids,” unless you’re only home for an hour a day. And even then you’re bound to get in 30 minutes of play and a few minutes of less appetizing stuff. (I’m not knocking Jon. He gets 8 kids dressed each morning before work. I’m just saying there is no time with children that is just fun and games.)

In the end, my anger at Standlen’s book comes from a perceived hurt—this woman who has never met me and has spent eight chapters cheering my every parenting choice now tells me I’m an unfit mother. She says that feeling anything but incessant, unconditional love is just wrong. That there is no room for both frustration and exhaustion and anger and love. You must simply love.

But she isn’t insulting me directly. And her assumptions are flawed. Ambivalence is not simply Freudian love/hate. Women who experience ambivalence are not selfish, and are often staying at home specifically to give their children everything they can afford. The well-balanced mothers she cites are probably working outside the home or addressing their own needs with a care giver or other help, and are therefore a little more, well, balanced. And in the end, these women Standlen criticizes are writers. They intellectualize their every moment of their day, every emotion, high and low. And they need to express what they find. Maybe they don’t need psychoanalysis so much as a community of other mothers to empathize with them. Being the scourge of society and of Naomi Standlen is really quite terrifying.

(We’re on nightmare number five and he’s officially awake. I need to go. But let me say this–my blog will always be a place you can come to feel ambivalent, appreciated, and understood.)

(And no, I didn’t type that while he cried. I typed it after I got back. I’m not a selfish monster. I’m an ambivalent, attachment co-parent. )

Parenting ambivalence

One of my friends expressed great distress at a discussion the other day, wherein many moms detailed their children’s latest adorable moments, and I asked if we could please, please talk about something other than children. Had anybody read a good book or seen a good movie or disagreed with a politician’s stance on something? I got a few muted shrugs and one dirty look. (Yes, I need new friends. We’re moving. I’ll fix that part of my isolation soon enough.)

I’m often the mom at parties and in email volleys who brings up The Mask of Motherhood by Susan Maushart; who warns young couples talking excitedly about becoming parents that they are in for the best and the absolute worst time of their lives. Nobody seems to appreciate the warnings, or the realism, or the honesty. Well, they can go jump off a Hallmark-stacked bridge because the smarmy, simpering, rose-colored glasses crap does not help make you a better parent.

Here’s the thing: the parenting gig can be amazing. I love running, and I have never had more fun running, never felt so completely tickled with head-to-foot silly happiness than when Peanut and I are playing chase. I have never particularly liked the beach (or, more specifically, getting dirty and sandy and salty and seaweedy at the beach), but experienced top-ten delirious HOURS of joy one morning with Peanut and Spouse, running and splashing and wandering the tidepools. I have never felt more moments of pure, warm bliss than I do sprinkled throughout every week with my little family. And I genuinely relish them, bask in them, luxuriate in them. I process every nanosecond of joy with the small person and the large person, because those moments feed me. They have to. The rest of the week is a big bunch of physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting bull puckey. (Hi, grandpa. I miss you.)

Because as intense as the radiant joy can be, I have also never been more frustrated in my life than I am every single day. I’ve never been more angry at a small person than I am each time I gently, calmly, supportively offer two options for the eighth or ninth time. [Time number ten and your head will be forcibly removed, my little friend, so f*#&@g choose.] I have never wanted so badly to hurt a person as I have when Peanut willfully ignores a reasonable request or when Spouse sleeps through Peanut being particularly trying. They both need a good shaking. (I will never, never think it’s okay to strike a child, but I think it’s really very much okay to fantasize about it. If sex experts say it’s healthy to pictures others while with your monogamous partner, parenting experts must think it’s okay to picture throwing screaming your kid against the wall while you try to comfort her.) I never had to give myself timeouts in my professional jobs. I took a deep breath and reasoned with whomever was wrong. But there are often times now that my reaction needs to be managed, and it’s easier to just leave the room and announce that mommy’s in timeout because she needs to think and breathe. “I have to go…or I’ll beat the crap out of you,” I think as I press myself into a tiny corner.

I have never wanted so badly to just do some freaking dishes in peace. I don’t even dream of reading or write or having a job where colleagues respect my contributions. I crave just performing some mindless, productive, useful physical labor. It scares me how low my expectations have become. I find Zen moments of meditative stillness and presence in prepping green beans for the steamer, if there is a safe and self-entertained Peanut in another room.

So ambivalence dominates my parenting. That doesn’t, oh lady who wants to tell me everything about her kid’s funny snot and poop stories, and is horrified to hear that I’m all cute-kid storied out, make me a bad parent. I have given over every moment of my day, every drop of my energy for two years to helping Peanut become a good, decent, responsible, useful member of society. (It hasn’t worked yet, at least not the useful part, but I’m willing to brave the long-term gratification gamble to hope one day the President will call with a Supreme Court nomination. Or that some band will need a drummer. Or that some sweet neighbor lady needs a dog walker. I don’t have parameters within which I define productive member of society. Remember that part about my low expectations.)

If parenting was all playing and tickling and teaching I’d be ALL over it. But it’s not. It’s planning and patience and cleaning and cooking and lovingly getting up several times at night and staying intently focused all day and ignoring impulses to direct energy into personal needs (sleep, bathroom, showering, exercise, quiet, books). And I don’t like that. I just don’t.

And this phase ends, sure. The intense neediness of very smallness is already sunsetting. (That’s tomorrow’s post, unless the house sells.) Eventually children are more self sufficient. I’ve given myself over entirely because that’s what the Peanuts of the world need to be secure, reasonable, well-adjusted adults. But even if all the work pays off, they won’t do stuff my way, so why the heck bother with all the attachment parenting? (Because we wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I complain about not sleeping, someone tells me I can let my child cry. But that is not a real parenting option for us. Why in the name of all that is nurturing would we do that? When said child can get up to use the bathroom by himself, get himself a cup of water, and use soundly developed coping skills to get back to sleep, he will. Until then, any kid at my house who wakes from a deep slumber screaming in fear and sadness gets his mom. End of story.)

You know, ambivalence isn’t apathy. Maintaining a really passionate stand at two ends of a spectrum does not even slightly resemble meh. And while holding on so tight might be counterproductive, I’d rather struggle fiercely to control the pendulum than let go and founder in the fair-to-middling of just getting by.