There are many different ways to be away, and I think I’m trying all of them. Motherhood is so demanding, so emotionally heavy, like wearing your heart on the outside of your body for the first time after 33 years of it being safely tucked inside a fortress of meaty ribs. I try alternately to confront all of these feelings, here and there, for a few moments at a time, or let them slip obligingly to the back of my mind, forced out by more immediate and important concerns, like do I have any cold diet cokes left in the refrigerator or do I need to add more.
Lu and I have been traveling frequently, usually to either set of grandparents, because that’s how I get help. Having just quit my job to stay home with Lu, I feel like hiring a babysitter or mothers helper is an unjustifiable, selfish expense, so instead I pack up 200 things every few days, and we drive hours north or east, stop in service stations for bottles of milk and 6″ subs, listen to books on CD or NPR, smile at each other through the defroster lines of the back window of the Ford while I pump gas. When I’m feeling good, I tell myself that it’s good for her to experience new places and people. When I feel bad, I wish I were capable of parenting her all by myself without needing other people.
I try to drown out the emotional weight of things by staying relentlessly busy. I recently replaced Facebook and Candy Crush (a “social media cleanse”) by starting four different books, continuing to spend hours a day creating products for my upcoming business launch, and writing. A new mom friend told me yesterday that she was slightly envious of my productivity. The truth is that it’s sometimes just too hard to hold my baby, look in her swamp eyes, and feed her, because in doing that I feel fucking everything all at one time, in a terrifying, subsuming way, and so instead I put her in a robotic rocking chair and prop her bottle up with a blanket and make yarn tassels in the chair next to her. I wish I could just be present for all of it, but I can’t.
This urge to run away from the love soup I’m full of has been cultivated over many years. I prefer to think than to feel; it’s easier, cleaner, less messy. Everything about babies is fundamentally messy. They wrap you up in the currents of their tornadoes and toss you around until you don’t recognize yourself anymore.
The other urge is more powerful: the urge to stay. The urge to never be away from her. The urge to hold her and stare at her and let everything fall apart.
Feeling this way, internalizing every pin-prick of self-doubt about my ability to wholeheartedly mother the whole heart with two teeth and chubby arms and a bald spot on the back of her head who lives outside my body but is not apart from it, makes me wish I were a religious person. I wish I felt the sense of peace and security that other people feel when, in the words of Donald Trump, they “eat [their] little cracker.”
John Dewey wrote this in A Common Faith, and it makes me feel better about wishing I believed in god:
The actual religious quality in the experience described is the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its production. The way in which the experience operated, its function, determines its religious value. If the reorientation actually occurs, it, and the sense of security and stability accompanying it, are forces on their own account. It takes place in different persons in a multitude of ways. It is sometimes brought about by devotion to a cause; sometimes by a passage of poetry that opens a new perspective; sometimes as was the case with Spinoza—deemed an atheist in his day—through philosophical reflection.
A “reorientation” that provides “security and stability” is exactly the thing I want, and what I always try to squeeze out of the comfortably modernized or vaguely spiritual texts that I reach for when I’m overwhelmed by feeling too much. I like how Dewey divorces religious experience from religion with pragmatism, by saying that’s it’s good so long as it’s useful, and can be brought on by anything.
I started rereading a corny but helpful book by an American Buddhist nun about how to meditate and started doing that again. I half lie down, propped up with a bunch of pillows because my back is bad, and I put on a Ravi Shankar mp3 and try to loosen the stress-knots in my brain about work, or drop the narrative I tell myself about the type of mother I am and just be with the fat, oppressive feelings in my chest. That’s another way I try to be away.
I know that the truth is that I’m okay, that I’m doing a good job. Lu is thriving. The decisions I make now to drive to Massachusetts for three days don’t matter that much. I should do what I need to do to stay sane and be happy and just lighten up about everything. I want to do that, too.
What I need to accept now is that it’s okay to be away. It’s okay to drive 150 miles northeast and sit at my mother-in-laws dining room table while she makes me pasta salad and sliced cucumbers and then washes the dishes afterwards. It’s okay to stare into Lu’s eyes sometimes and be completely sucked in, and other times to look at the TV and shield my heart from the whole thing. It’s okay to have a massive, paradoxical, self-deprecating ego that wants to be a hot shit atheist but also to desperately seek the wisdom of some practiced institution that promises relief from feeling, which to me means suffering.
Anyway, who doesn’t like road trips?