March 20, 2007

The State of Things

I was thinking the other day about a comment Amy E made few posts back; regarding my ambivalence about baby messiness she pointed out that "it could be worse." Which is totally, completely true, and you realize this the minute you have a baby. There are a million things that you are suffering and a million things about which you are worrying, and yet you say to yourself: "Wow. It could be worse." You could be a single parent with six kids. You could have a baby in the NICU. You could have an even younger baby in the NICU. You could live on the sixth floor with no elevator instead of just the third floor with no elevator. I find myself completely overwhelmed by all the amazing things that parents do, just because they have to. Never am I so amazed by other people as when I'm getting the baby and the dog and six bags of groceries up to our third-story condo, and think to myself " People do this with babies AND two-year-olds. AT THE SAME TIME."

What strikes me most is that, really, we could hardly have it better. True, we have lots of stairs. But we also have streaming afternoon sun. We have this completely amazing, happy, healthy baby. We like each other so much. We like our work, and our dog, and our city, and our condo by the lake, and our neighbors, and our amazingly supportive friends, and our families near and far. As our life shifts from the world of potentials--potential children, potential careers, potential homes--to the world of the real, the here and now, I think, everyday: I am so lucky. I think, in my secular way, that we are so blessed.

And yet! And yet. What's interesting, and hard to communicate, is that in the midst of our incredible good fortune, we are working so very hard. There's so much to do, and it's so difficult to negotiate the differences between all we've come to know and like about ourselves in the last thirty years and the reality of what our lives are like now. The other morning Brandon and I were standing in the kitchen, feeding Elliot--our gorgeous sweet child--his cereal, and I just felt myself buckling. "I don't know how it's all going to happen," I said. "How are we going to do this?"

"This" here being a nebulous diectic, pointing variously to my dissertation, our careers, our interests in art and music and conversation, our need to exercise, both of our deep needs for freedom and time alone. Who are we without these things? Who are we without the ability to privilege them, honor them with the commitment of our time? And yet, who would we be if we didn't put them all at least a little to the side, acknowledging that Elliot needs us and deserves us, and that an intense commitment to family is our one priority that has not changed.

I think about our life, and our son, and all those people who are navigating the world under even harder circumstances. I feel a bit like Miranda on her island, looking for the first time at a future she didn't know had existed. "What a brave new world that has such people in't!" she said, in wonder and exaltation and fear. I suppose what we were learning is that we thought we knew something of the challenges of life. We thought we understood about ambition, and sleepness nights, and all of that. But instead, this is it, this new negotiation. All those people who have it "worse" than us, this is what they are teaching us: you can do more than you ever dared to imagine. It will just be--you will be--very very different than you thought.


Amy E said...

I've been thinking a lot the past couple of years about why people have children, apart from the fundamentals of biological drive and genetic perpituity. There are a variety of selfish and alternately generous reasons to have children. There is the lovely process of wanting to create something that is 100% part of you and part of your partner, the ultimate merging of "two" into a new "one."

At the age of 30 now, and unwed, it seems unlikely that I will have children myself. This is an interesting way to think of the rest of my life, which will probably last another 40 years. What is a life without children? What can be new from this point forward, without a child? Another degree? Another career? Another boyfriend? Another ski trip? Another Burning Man? Those experiences will be different versions of things I already know, reiterations and translations of feelings and understandings with which I am familiar already. I can't imagine what could possibly feel truly novel, except having a child. Anything repeated, with a child, could feel novel.

The other day my mom told me that out of everything she has done in her life - being married, being a psychotherapist and helping hundreds of patients in over 35 years of her career, being a daughter, etc., "being a mother is still the best thing I ever did. It was and continues to be the best part of my life."

I hear this from her and I know she means what she says, because her love for my brother and I is the truest and most reliable thing I know in the universe. But I think of how hard she and my father have worked to care for my brother and I, so responsibly, with all of their hearts, and it is truly magical that despite ALL THE WORK OF PARENTING, it is still what they love most about their lives.

So what does this mean about humans? Do we really love to have children, or do we love what makes us work hardest? Surely there are some people who love their jobs more than their children - especially architects. I wonder if people who have nannies love their children as much as people who do not.

Maybe people love most what they work hardest at.

Nah, I think people love children, work or no work.

"The purpose of life is to live."
-Ray Bradbury

Henrie Family said...

Amy and Sarah,

You have both captured a lot of the essence of parenting. I am not sure that I can analyze or quantify all of the reasons I love my children. Surely there are biological and evolutionary components to love, but that knowledge does not lend it's self to the practical end of things.

The jist of it is that I would do anything for my kids, and I can't imagine how people can cope when something bad happens to a child.

Alright, enough mushy stuff. Amy, you are only 30, you have 10 years of child bearing left, and several years of possible adoption after that. Don't give up so soon...You are entitled to do things on your own timeline.

Anonymous said...

That Sarah! She's always been so eloquent! what a clever/wise girl/woman!

and Amy E (see comment #1 above, readers), though I have never met your mother, I salute her as a sister because of what she said about you and your brother! I feel the same.

do you know the quote that goes something like to have a child is forever to have your heart walking around outside your body?

or Toni Morrison put the delicate equation better in Beloved, I think. Sethe says of her daughter, "she was my best thing." and Paul D replies, "You your best thing, Sethe. You are."

anywho, Amy E, you never know what life may have in mind for you. See B's and Sarah's flicker site for pictures of Aunt Nan, who at 44 gave birth to Emma (now 6)!

Smooches to Elliot et al. Sarah's and Mark's mother, and Elliot's Mimi

Kati P. said...

If I chose not to have a child, I don't think I am going live a life unfulfilled. Motherhood is not the end all be all of womanhood. I don't think motherhood makes a woman the best woman she can be. Amazing women may become amazing mothers. Amazing women may become awful mothers. Motherhood neither makes a woman awesome nor is it automatically an awesome experience.

One thing I have learned from reading these posts is that motherhood is a unique and ever-changing experience; one day the child is an alien, the next a door to a brave new world. What I take from Sarah's recent post is that motherhood is changing her, her relationship with Brandon, her relationship to her work, her relationship to a flight of stairs, her relationship to everything and every person around her. And she is welcoming and inviting and cherishing that change. And that is pretty awesome and at the same time not something I have the urge to experience firsthand. I am no worse a person for preferring to read about it than to perform it.

When and if I decide to have a child -- I'm 30 and gay and not counting myself out -- I am glad I will have friends like S&B for love and support. But not pumpkin smoothies. Those were yucky.

sarah said...

i just want to go on the record here in support of Kati P's very true claim that "Motherhood neither makes a woman awesome nor is it automatically an awesome experience." My thought in this post was not at all to sentimentalize the experience of parenthood--motherhood especially--but rather to think through some of the reasons why it is so emotionally difficult, even under the best of circumstances (and I consider myself to be parenting pretty much under the best of circumstances).

A couple of follow-up thoughts: I am used to feeling success, feeling proud, about an experience that I have devoted myself to whole-heartedly. But now as a parent, I can't really ever devote myself to anything so completely again: I always have to remember that my child might need me, and that if he does, I have to go. So that sort of commitment and accomplishment aren't really available to me; at the same time, it is also impossible to completely devote yourself to parenthood in the same way, because that would (ironically) put too much pressure on your kids. As mama says, you have to be your own best thing.

Second, all the changes of parenthood make me appreciate hugely what a choice it is to have a child: Kati and Amy are not my only strong women friends who might choose otherwise, and now, having had a child myself, I really respect that. Kati and Amy give a lot to the world, and neither will be able to do that in the same way as mothers. (at the same time, it's always possible--though, as kati says, not inevitable--that they would give something different, and maybe even better).

Third, having said that a child is a choice, it is the only choice I have ever made that irrevocably, fundamentally, will shape my life for the rest of my life. I can in no way unchoose my child. As I said: I'm now in the world of the present, rather than the world of potentials. Different things are possible now. Different things are true of me now. Having spent a long time as a feminist trying to deemphasize the importance of motherhood in the study of women's lives, the way I feel right now is that parenthood is the only thing that can do this (another possible thing is caring for a dependent sibling, who you know will structure your life forever).

That is not to say that this parenting thing is the only thing worth doing. But I don't know what else does this thing. And it does make me feel more rooted in the cycles of experience, in my own life. And it is a different kind of love: this love for a person that will be there always, that cannot be taken away, that will define me in a way I can't undo. I understand more about the world, now that I am learning to love in this way.