On holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, I usually go to bed. I crawl into a darkened room and pull the covers around my face. I find that by putting heavy pillows over my head and leaving just a little space through which I can breathe, I can muffle out the sounds of the household. My superpower is that I can sleep all day even if I slept well the night before. Hypersomnia is a wonderful gift on Mother's Day.
Don't get me wrong. I love being a mother. I love my children so much it hurts to think about it. In fact, I've been in exquisite emotional pain since I lost my first pregnancy thirteen years ago. That miscarriage was followed by another pregnancy two weeks later which a well-intentioned nurse told me I might also lose. And so the relentless pain and worry began. Will I get this child through this pregnancy, through infancy, through childhood, through adolescence? And it never lets up. Not ever.
Every time one of my children smiles at me, I feel not only joy and delight but panic. My heart plays a tune in a minor key. Cold fear. Oh yes, having children means happiness, silliness, playfulness, and wonder. I have all those things every day. But through it all is the fear, the acid aftertaste of the joy. This all could be lost in a heartbeat. A voice sounds in my head even as the smile plays across my face, even as I gaze with adoration into those perfect, trusting eyes. "You are totally responsible for this precious life. Do you have it in you? In this diseased, terrible, violent culture, can you stand between this soul and death?" You see, that is my job. I gave them life and I stand between them and the forces of darkness though I am neither worthy nor capable of the job. In the end, the answer is "No." I cannot stand between this soul and the pain and death that waits for all of us. I can hardly stand the pain of that reality.
Meanwhile, I just do my best. Some days are better than others. I can teach them about justice and gentleness. I can teach them about history and art. I can teach them how to make a doll's dress from an old sock. Every once in a great while I make a nutritious meal that isn't "gross". I read bedtime stories, wipe noses and bottoms. I clean up after them. I am the invisible force that sanitizes the toilet seat. I am the fixer of toys and the kisser of boo boos.
I know their moods and their limitations. I see their growth and I chart it, photograph it, record it. One ear is always tuned in to their station. Do you know the difference between a child's cry of frustration, delight, and anger? A mother learns how to differentiate between various shouts, laughs, cries and screams. She has to learn these so she can react properly. Each sound requires something different. I may be required to intervene in a fight or let it continue. I may be required to jump in or butt out. Do those tears require a cheerful, "Boom! Uh oh, you fell down!" or do they require me to gather the child in my arms?
It takes time and great attention to know the things that a mother knows. On how many occasions has someone else said to me, "Oh, I can hear your son/daughter. Do you need to go?" And I say something like, "Oh, no. He's just mad at his brother (enjoying his game, frustrated with a puzzle, etc.)---And then there's the cry that makes me drop everything (the phone, the laundry, my work, the groceries) and run as if my own life depends on it (because it does) to get to that child. That scream. The one that eviscerates like an icy blade. A mother knows.
And what gets me on Mother's Day is that while I lie awake at night imagining every disease and disaster that could befall my children, in the daylight hours I only want to sleep. I want to forget all the ways I have failed them. Try as hard as I do, I can never feel that I am doing what they need from me. I cannot seem to keep up with the work of educating them, of keeping them clean, of teaching them right from wrong. I can't compete with television and video games, of bureaucracies and institutions and peers. Each day I go to bed thinking that I didn't teach them enough math, I didn't feed them enough vegetables, I didn't make sure they exercised. I was too impatient, too involved in my own projects, too distracted, too busy with housework, too tired, too tired, too tired...
And the work is relentless. A bed is made and unmade and made again and unmade. The floor is swept and then the dirt is tracked in and then a cat throws up on it. There is laundry. So much laundry. A mountain of laundry, as many as half a dozen loads a day. A then there are the dishes. Do you know there are times that I am tempted to skip meals just to avoid the dishes? And there's homeschooling which might be much more fun if it weren't for the testing and school district requirements that have nothing to do with my children and the way they learn and everything to do with the way institutions are designed to demand conformity.
Through it all, I always wonder what they will learn from me. I'm not talking about exercise and vegetables, about multiplication and how to wash your hair. What will they learn from watching me? I know they see the darkness I carry. Will they also see the depth? Will they know how totally I have loved them? Every time I see a woman pregnant with her first I wish I could tell her, "There is nothing I can say that will prepare you for what you are about to do. There is no greater joy and no greater sorrow than this. Imagine a joy so large you cannot keep it. Your heart must break to give it birth."
So that is why on Mother's Day I just want to crawl into a darkened room where I can partake of a tiny sip of oblivion. Let me forget how much I fail these fragile, beautiful, wise and heartbreaking creatures who emerged from my body. Spare me the pain of their faithfulness. Release me from hearing from their trusting lips that I am the best mother. Let me forget for a moment that this cutting joy never ends but cuts deeper every moment of their life as I learn to love them better.
I do not wish to hear the saccharine statements people make on this day. Anyone who has been a mother knows there is nothing Hallmark can say on the subject. Nearly every child thinks his or her mother is the best. Every mother knows she is not. Let me sleep through the weight of that burden.