(2002 – 2007)
I hit one of them again today — a swat upside the head — after which I looked from the corner of my eyes for any redness. They say that when you hit a child, you don’t see the real swelling, but at that moment I wasn’t focused on the lasting effects of my actions. I didn’t stop to consider how far my temper might go toward shaping my children, nor stop to remember the example I’m to set. I didn’t stop myself at all. When I need a fix of sweet release, I can’t always think about the way my sticks and stones will ripple the waters.
My own mother swatted me several times but without much force; over time, she ceased to scare me at all. My father spanked me twice. My parents were progressive and hated themselves for the handful of times I was struck. My father was getting his Ph.D. in behavioral psychology; a disciple of B.F. Skinner, he did not believe in corporal punishment. Instead my parents believed in and taught “mind over matter.” Evolution was a call to action: Walk upright and use only that which separates you from the animals, they told me. And as an adult, I thought I had a handle on it, that I had earned my opposable thumbs. It never occurred to me that I would fall prey to the instincts of my least evolved self. And then I had children of my own.
Motherhood is canonized and criminalized but rarely acknowledged as the animal endeavor that it is. For some women, pregnancy hints at the mother-animal they will become. One woman might flit around like a humming bird while nesting. Another might hibernate through her first trimester. Me? I craved meat. One evening, in my third trimester, I ordered a well-done cheeseburger from the local diner. When it arrived medium rare, I crumbled it into a ball and threw it as hard as I could at the wall. Half-cooked meat splattered and clung to the kitchen walls. Then I sat down and cried while my husband — a prince and, by default, beast of burden — cleaned my mess. That should have been a strong indicator of what was to come.
If those three trimesters don’t direct you to the section of the zoo with your name on the cage, the “fourth” trimester will. The first three months with a new baby are like sitting in a sweat lodge until the visions come and you speak incoherently. You emerge blinded by the light and are given a new name: Two Breasts Leaking, Two Arms Aching. Without adequate sleep, nutrition, or the diversions you have come to rely on, you will quickly have a vision of your inner animal. I am no shark, I was never going to eat my young, but I am no lamb either. I roared the lion’s song from within the confines of motherhood.
It was not my daughter’s needs that I found unbearable; it was my own drive to meet those needs. She would always need me, I knew; she was a baby and a perfect one at that. But that I would always answer her call was far more alarming. If the scent of my skin soothed her, I could not deny her my touch. If the sound of my voice soothed her, I would sing us both to sleep no matter how dry my throat became. I would never be free again, and I knew it. When my daughter was days old, I sat nursing her in a fog on our bed. Bleeding and sore, I bent down and whispered in her ear, “I wasn’t done yet.” It was a secret, something you cannot express without baring your roughest sketches of desire. I was not anxious about thank you notes I couldn’t write or the bathroom I couldn’t clean; I was mourning every dream left unrealized.
I had imagined that after my baby was born, I’d have “date night” with my husband and write the great American novel before her first birthday. I had even imagined continuing to work. But after my maternity leave was exhausted, I wheeled my stroller into my boss’s office and sobbed.
“I can’t . . .leave her,” I stammered. My boss thought I was crying because I was so torn. But I was crying because I was no longer in control. I was reduced to something animal, painted into a corner by my own instincts. I meant it literally. I might as well have been sewn to her. I could not leave her.
In the movie, The Missing, Cate Blanchett plays the frontier mother of two girls. When her oldest daughter is kidnapped by Indians, Blanchett’s character sets out on a journey to track the tribe and reclaim her child. As the journey becomes increasingly dangerous, Blanchett’s father advises her to give up the search and go home. “I don’t know how,” she admits, as though something else is in control: an animal that cannot be reasoned with. This is the mother-animal we admire: The Protectress. She is noble and her mane is shiny.
I am that fierce Protectress — sometimes. Take for instance, the day two four-year-olds sat under the jungle gym and told my three year-old daughter she couldn’t play with them because she was boring and stupid. My mommy wires cauterized, curling the hairs of the mothers I passed on my way to kill somebody. I got under that jungle gym, snatched the shovel from one of the chest-puffing cubs and roared until the screws loosened and the empty swings rocked back and forth. The girl began to sob uncontrollably and the nannies began their advance. It was clear to us all that my response had not been measured. So I circled slowly, spit to the side and lurched one last time, just to watch them flinch. Then I took my daughter’s hand and sauntered away.
Okay, it’s not exactly the same. I still come out looking crazy. My husband would have infiltrated, talked smooth, stayed cool, and had those ankle-biting Barbies whistling while they dug their own graves. He walks upright and does not apply scorched earth tactics on the playground, at the office, or at home. But being a mother separates you from that which separates you from the animals. This much love is not reasonable. It drives me like the taste of blood drives the mad predator, and I pace in my cage — waiting to pounce at the first glimpse of the animal in others.
Often those others are my own children, looking to me for guidance and a strong sense of self. With the right example, they will ride humanity’s natural trajectory away from the animal kingdom and towards Enlightenment, if you will. So why can’t I pick on someone my own size?
For one thing, I have allowed myself far too much distance from the things that make me a human being, the things that would keep the animal at bay. I do not find time to read, volunteer, achieve, accomplish, and participate in the world. My life’s work is two feet from the ground, far from the head space it used to occupy. But this is the motherhood trap: even when your babes are small, the human spirit will not let you live life on all fours. So now I find myself in a tug-of-war between the best and the worst I have to offer. When my children collapse in a heap, crying over the world’s cruel boundaries, I have to steel myself. My instincts are not instantly nurturing. First I want to kill them, and then I want to join them. If I can make it past those first two impulses, my third inclination is toward grace.
I am blessed to have the children I have. They are not the kids whose teeth you want to knock out for the good of mankind. They are not the toddling hyenas who leave bite marks on their mothers and laugh, nor electric eels tossing themselves like live wires around the room. Can those children really be reasoned with? What is the recourse when words fail? It is not, I think, hitting. I do not use my giant paws as instruments in something orchestrated. I do not hit my children because I think it is good for them, that they need it, or will be the better for it. I hit them because I am unable to breathe. Motherhood occasionally knocks the wind out of me.
More often, there are aspects of this feral gig I relish. Licking and grooming my young, pulling the splinters from their pads and encouraging them to prance again. I love to nibble their necks and show them the world. And, while I don’t always like what I see, believe it or not, I love the mirror they show me. My youngest is my carbon copy, both inside and out. I understand him but find him far more difficult to deal with than my daughter who, like her father, is reliable, even, and true. My daughter can both finesse a situation and accept no for an answer. My son, on the other hand, bumps up against resistance and gnashes his teeth. He is triggered by infractions so slight they cannot be seen by the naked eye. God, he makes my blood boil! We are animals, the two of us, and my daughter bravely sticks her hand in our cage to comfort us. Braced for the tantrums of my son, I have come to depend on her as the human being she is. When she embraces her nature as a four-year old, I am surprised. I don’t have time for it. Can’t she see I am busy backing my unbroken son into the stable? Can’t she see my own cage door coming unhinged? Sweet child, do not get too close. Please do not feed the animals.
The human behavior experiments of the late sixties and early seventies showed us that people would approximate animal behavior — which is to say, behave predictably — in a designated set of circumstances. Placed in a mock prison environment, volunteer “guards” will exhibit sadistic behavior. Stripped of their identity — given numbers and shackled — the volunteer “prisoners” will break down. Otherwise upstanding citizens are quickly reduced to the moral ambiguities of their job descriptions. Within social constructs, people play their parts. As mother, I am both prisoner and prison guard. Did you think I wouldn’t object to the bars? Did you think I would never abuse my power?
I was raised to believe I could do anything. So vast were my possibilities that as a little girl I cried trying to decide what world to conquer first. Yesterday I cleaned the same room three times. I spoke to no one over four years old, read nothing without pictures, and emptied 14 items of clothing into a laundry bin that will overflow before I can start this cycle over. Take one woman, tell her she can do anything, and then create a circumstance in which she can do nothing. It is a sophisticated form of biological sabotage: give a woman someone who needs her and, unable to resist the call, she will sacrifice her own needs to meet the needs of others. In other words, she will step aside for what she cannot step over. But I do not go gently.
Six years ago, if you had shown me a picture of my daughter’s face and told me someone hit her, my stomach would have lurched. I would have enjoyed a rush of righteous indignation against the perpetrator, sworn that would never be me. I didn’t get into this mommy thing with violence in mind. I wear Birkenstocks, followed the Grateful Dead, for Christ’s sake! I vow repeatedly to be smarter than the animals, but I cry over spilt milk and when they color on the wall, I froth at the mouth. And sometimes, when the decibel levels rise beyond the capacity of my human ears, beyond the reach of reason, I spank.
The thing with spanking is that it’s just so effective. Maybe not in that proverbial “long run,” but right now, This instant, as my mother used to say. I know many mothers who do not spank and wouldn’t dream of physically hurting their children. I wish I knew what they do when the moon is full, when their minds let loose the reins and when what really matters is of little consequence. They must be Zen masters or saints; or maybe they understood all along that it would be like this.
I don’t want to be Nature’s bitch — a puppet tethered to biology and made to dance to the beat of some primal drum. I see other women defy the ties that bind them to the animal world. But for a girl who could do anything, I find myself unqualified for the world’s most natural task. I can protect my children from everything but my beast within. It rears its head when you ask me to fade away. It growls when you ask me to have no dreams of my own. And then, on dark nights, when the wind howls and both cubs are nestled in our den, it whimpers in reverence.