I’m going to confess something that might sound shocking coming from a writer who often takes as her subject the complex and sometimes dark experience of mothering young children:
Today was one of those incredible days where I just felt heart-bursting love for my kids, all day.
It’s true I don’t write too much about what my two-year-old, Nate, calls the “happy-happy” — and that right there is just about why I don’t. (“The happy-happy”? Please. It’s cute, sentimental, sappy — but if you’re looking for that, why not just pick up a Hallmark card?) It’s difficult to write compellingly about motherhood; it’s nearly impossible to write well about being content with it. But just because I don’t write about it much doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.
I can’t explain why today was so wonderful. The usual chaos occurred: we woke up late, I failed to give the kids a nutritious sit-down breakfast, Emi didn’t want Gil to drive her to school but we were too late to walk, Nate fussed because he wanted to go in the “big black car.” Later I wasted time I could have used doing something else, I ate too much, I ignored the messy house, I finished reading a book.
I got choked up when I picked up Emi from kindergarten and she walked all the way home like a big girl, instead of hitching a ride in the double stroller, and chattered to me about her day. I got choked up when we watched a little of the “Schoolhouse Rock” DVD we got for Christmas and I had to explain to Emi about nouns, and about democracy, and how America started, and how a long time ago women weren’t allowed to vote, or wear pants or have jobs like men. I got choked up when Nate said, “Aah-you, Mommy,” which is how he says “Love you,” and I got choked up when he said something and I guessed what he was saying, and he clapped his hands in delight at my intuitive understanding and said, “Dat’s RIGHT, Mommy!”
Maybe I’m ovulating. Maybe I feel tender towards these creatures because my body is urging me to make more.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just letting myself feel the overwhelmingness of our interconnectedness, of their love for me and mine for them. Emi has been talking about the tsunami, has told me that if we ever got separated by a wave, she’d look out for Nate and make sure he was safe. I see her easing past her ambivalence about being a big sister, I see her look at signs or words in my books and read them to me like an actual person, I see her gaining confidence about herself that she hasn’t had before. Nate is his usual “happy-happy” self, but he is shape-shifting too, transforming from a toddler into a little boy, his face thinning, his body lengthening. He still has the throaty baby laugh when he’s tickled, but how long until that, too, transforms itself?
It’s hard to write about the joyful parts of parenting, the good days, the days you feel high on the heart-breaking cuteness of your kids, because even more than the dark stuff, the joy is so personal. And because it’s so personal, and so specific to your particular child and your relationship with that child, it’s hard not to have it come out either generalized to the point of sappiness, or just off-puttingly sentimental. Joy in mothering is one of those experiences, like giving birth, that is so overwhelming, so huge, that words fail us, that we retreat to cliched expressions other people have used countless times before us, that any personal element is leeched out into the collective experience of what we all have felt so intensely at one time or another as mothers.
It’s hard, too, to make something that specific mean something to someone else. I admit, my eyes roll when I encounter a too-sweet story about someone’s cutest baby ever, or a sappy ramble about a drooly, toothless grin. And yet I’ve had those moments myself, those times when one of my kids does something so adorable I feel convinced no one else has ever seen anything like it. I’ve even foisted my own sweet, sappy stories on friends, spent playdates swapping kid-funnies that made everyone laugh.
Still, it’s one thing to share a sweet story; it’s quite another to write about it well. There’s no plot, no narrative arc, no punchline, no pathos to these joyous moments, just babies who clap their hands, toddlers who hug the cat, preschoolers who try to get dressed by themselves, kindergarteners who swear they will grow up to marry their little brothers. Without a real story to be grounded in, it’s just a bunch of character studies — and if you don’t know the characters in real life, it’s hard to care.
A woman whose child attends Nate’s school chatted with me one day about her 13-month-old baby, whom she hoped would still be easy-going when he turned two. I commented that Nate had been a zen-baby in his infancy and is still a very sweet, easy child, even now, during the so-called “terrible twos.” I said, “Two’s been great for us, but, who knows — three might be different,” and she looked at me, shocked. “You’re having another baby?” she asked, quickly glancing at my mid-section. “No,” I said. “I meant age three might be different.” I tried to joke about it, saying, “You did read my book, right? Two is just fine!” And she said, “Yeah — you’re the last person I’d expect to have more kids.”
In the moment, I laughed it off — ha ha, yes, me, author of a book about how complicated it is being a mother, obviously I don’t want more kids! — but afterwards I was struck by her throw-away remark. Of course it’s logical for someone to assume that because I write so often about the difficulties of mothering that I might actually not like mothering — that’s the knee-jerk response to any woman who writes about mothering in any way that deviates from the sentimental. But I was stung by it nonetheless, stung to be the messenger she had confused with the message.
In all probability, she likely meant it as a joke, had tried to echo the spirit of my self-deprecation but missed the mark. And yet that misconception — that anyone who speaks openly or honestly about the difficulties of a given subject is “bad” at that subject, or ill-suited to that subject — is a damaging one. At least as far as mothering is concerned. I think we need to talk about the dark side, the desperation, the sleepless nights, the primal fears, without being labeled as traitors to maternity.
And yet it’s true that mothering is not all frustration and stress, all the time. Or rather, that joy and happiness and frustration and stress exist on the same continuum, or even all at once. It’s just hard to write about the heart-bursting moments, hard to not use those incredible moments where love and chaos are in balance to wipe out or devalue those other moments when the imbalance of those forces has us by the throat.
Today, though, was, for whatever reason, one of those heart-bursting days when I felt like I could be the ideal parent I strive to be, when I felt that surging love for my kids that’s more visceral and enveloping than even the nervous heart-racing love you have for a lover; when I felt like I had to write, just a little, about the joy.