I’ve been a mother half my life. Nearly a quarter century, and most of my adulthood. In all that time, I have been trying to figure out how to mother in a way that feels right. Or at least with my sanity intact. I made things especially hard for myself – though not deliberately. I was a single parent pretty much the whole time, so I rarely had practical help or other support. I also had powerful maternal hormones that wouldn’t allow me to leave my babies in daycare or let them cry themselves to sleep. So I was tired. And I had creative aspirations that were an enormous struggle since I had no time or help or money to be able to pursue them.
Though I did so by instinct rather than to subscribe to a parenting style, my mothering was what has been labeled attachment parenting. For me, this was simply what felt right. I gave birth at home because I didn’t have a lot of faith in doctors being respectful of my birthing body. I nursed my babies past the prescribed first year because they weren’t ready to be weaned. I kept them home with me because I knew no caregiver could love them the way I did, and it seemed to me that babies and young children need love above all else. For many reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t think school is a good idea, so I didn’t send my kids to regular school for many years of their childhoods. All of these choices were difficult ones, as they put me at odds with social norms. And that meant there were never adequate support systems for us. In fact, I generally had to create my own supports: playgroup, homeschooling group, alternative school, etc. It took a lot of energy. I was exhausted and frustrated, as I was never able to fully meet my own and my children’s needs.
But that was only part of the struggle. There were all sorts of emotional, social, and cultural dimensions to motherhood that I had to work through as well. I wasn’t mothering the way I had learned to from my own mother, who was a traditional stay-at-home mom who availed herself of the revolutionary modern developments of her time, such as formula–which I can’t blame her for. I wasn’t mothering the way my contemporary peers were mothering, with daycare and material comforts and conveniences to replace a mother’s care and labour. That meant I had to figure things out on my own. And I had to work harder. In retrospect, I can see it would have been wiser to compromise at times. Fortunately I was able to develop a community of support with like-minded mothers, so I wasn’t too alone. But still, motherhood brings enormous emotional and spiritual challenges, which were further complicated by my creative pursuits. I felt a need for ancestral models and archetypes and narratives that would help me navigate this difficult terrain and understand the deeper meaning of this endeavor.
I read Jungian theory and went to therapy. I researched and wrote about my maternal grandmother, who had been killed by my grandfather just before my birth; this broken maternal line felt significant to me, somehow—an emptiness that I could never fill. I read biographies of women writers and artists, but so few of them were mothers. I delved into ancient Minoan culture and feminist revisionings of other women-centered, goddess-worshipping societies. I searched all over for clues about how to do this seemingly impossible thing: be a woman, a mother, and a creative person in this world. There were very few stories of such women. And almost every story was, in the end, about failure. About how women could not, in fact, be all those things at once and survive while sane, happy, free. Maybe there had been such women—I know there have been—but their rare stories have even more rarely been told. The line of inheritance or transmission from them to me has been broken. So I don’t know how they might have met all those challenges, maternal and creative, and met their own needs. I wanted a narrative of how to not just survive, but to thrive. Yes, I did want it all. And then I wanted to tell the story of how I did it, to start a new narrative for other women to follow. Sadly, that hasn’t happened.
I was working on a poetry manuscript exploring all this when I got sick. That project had started with poems about the challenges of mothering my young son through addiction. Part of this work involved researching other stories about mothering, especially the real challenges of mothering, but I could hardly find any in all of Western culture (including art, literature, film). I went all the way back to the bible, then to Greek mythology. I also looked at Indigenous creation stories. That got me started on writing about the first mothers, about Eve and Demeter and Sky Woman too. I started working on this again last week, though it’s unlikely I’ll have time to complete the project (I do have help available to me). Yet it seems to me now that it is so important to tell these stories of motherhood. There are so few of them, and stories are what guide us through life as humans. Without stories we are lost, as I was for so much of my motherhood.
A year ago, I started on a new phase of motherhood: I had to learn how to be an empty-nest parent. At 18, my youngest son moved out to live closer to school. My older son had moved out four years earlier, at the same age. I was sad, but also excited. I moved into a new home that was just mine. The kitchen stayed clean; it was quiet and peaceful, a lovely sanctuary to come home from work to, or to welcome my boyfriend to. I set up a studio in a spare room and imagined all the creative work I could do. But this phase also meant redefining myself once again. What does it mean to be a woman in this world? The answer seems to change so often, and generally in relation to others. I was turning fifty. I had only myself to look after on a daily basis. I had time and space to myself, a new freedom that felt wonderful after so many years. I could just be me. Maybe I could finally be that creative person who had been waiting almost a quarter century!
That wondrous phase didn’t last long! Instead, I am in this final phase of motherhood. One of the biggest lessons of mothering has always been the letting go. Every phase has offered its version of this challenge. I remember that as a mother who was so attached, I was frequently cautioned about this by those concerned that my babies wouldn’t detach from me. But I think that is when we can see how attachment parenting works to achieve the goal of creating independent, well-adjusted adults: the child’s emotional needs have been so fully met that they are ready, able, and excited to go out into the world on their own. I see this with my own boys, in any case. They were both ready to move out just before turning nineteen. I was perhaps less ready than them, but I accepted their choices and let them go. And while we enjoy getting together now, they have very little need of me. Sometimes this has made me sad, because I would like to see them more. But now it’s an enormous comfort to me as I approach death. I am especially glad now that my younger son has had this year on his own. He is not losing his home with my death, and I am reassured to have seen that he can indeed look after himself. If he’d still been living with me and needing his mom on a daily basis, this would have been a far more wrenching experience for both of us.
So while part of me wants to spend every possible moment with them, I told them right away –the day I told them that I was dying– that I wanted them to keep on with their schooling and their regular lives, and just visit me when they had free time or needed to. I have been so glad that they have done this. It has been such a solace to see them dedicated to their educational pursuits, happy with their girlfriends, going out and having fun now and then. My youngest son has now graduated from college and launched his professional career with performances around the world. I miss him, but I am so pleased to see him establish his career. This way, I can see that he really will be okay, a competent and independent young man, when I am gone. I am glad though, that he’ll come home during breaks! Meanwhile, my older son’s continuing hard work has yielded the academic achievements that will help him gain admission to grad school. Finding the balance between spending this precious time together and their independence is tricky! No mother wants to be clingy or demanding of her children, so I let their need for me determine their visits as much as I can. And the less they need me, the easier it is to let go. Motherhood for me has always meant being in a state of conflict: meeting my own needs versus meeting theirs; indulging my maternal needs versus my creative or personal needs. There’s not much that makes me happier than being with my beautiful boys, but there’s also not much that makes me happier than knowing they are excited about living their lives in such positive ways.
Sometimes I think of children as beings that are just lent to us for a time. They are entrusted to us to be raised and cared for, but then we have to hand them back to the world to live their own lives with their own purpose. Though I certainly learned a lot about myself and the world in the process of raising my boys, it was never really supposed to be about me. While I’d hoped for some time to finally nurture my creative self now that they are so beautifully grown up, that’s not how things have turned out. So now I am handing them back. This is a bigger letting go than I had planned, but I have faith that they will be okay.