I remember how, in the earliest days and months of motherhood, I felt like I'd been betrayed. Like the world had lied to me. That the image of empowered career woman as competent mother was a pack of lies. That my career and my child were supposed to be able to coexist, equally.
I was angry. Really angry. And resentful.
I was transitioning out of a job I'd been in for three years. I didn't love the job, but I was good at it. It was comfortable. It helped to pay the bills. But while I was leaving on my own terms, the arrival of a new boss (and my previously mentioned philosophical disagreement with her) meant I decided to leave much, much sooner than I had originally planned.
And I was ticked. Really ticked.
And bereft: What was I without my job? Wasn't that the one thing that was supposed to stay the same?
During the last week of that job, my husband suggested I read a blog post on the New York Times,
"My Daughters / My Self" by Judith Warner (http://bit.ly/7VxvDx).
In it, I read this:
…I choked on the proud effusions of identity dissolution that I read in popular mom-lit: (“That remotely familiar stranger that I used to define as myself … couldn’t have imagined the desire, the passionate obsession, to enslave myself to another. Totally absorbed, I lost myself within the tiny coil, the perfect comma, of her body,” as per Nora Okja Keller in the “Mothers who Think” essay collection.)
I mocked moms’ childlike clothing and hair, their singsong voices, their utter inability, encouraged by parenting books and magazines that preached “affective synchrony” with their young children, to inhabit their own adult selves.
And there I saw myself.
At that point, I was trying to find anything, anything, that would help me find my way out of my seething resentment at the world. (For whatever reason, I never resented either my husband or my son–in my eyes they were blameless. My vitriol was solely directed at a society that had, I felt, set me up to fail as both a mother and as a professional.)
I ordered her book that night.
When it came, I tore into it. I read it, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived. I read it on the bus, on the subway. And on page after page after page, fellow mothers' words read as my own. Their thoughts as my thoughts. Their anger as my anger. It was a balm to an open and festering wound.
You see, I saw my anger as yet another failing in what so often felt like my incompetent attempts at motherhood. Everyone else seemed so damned happy to be a mom, and so breezily good at it. Why wasn't it easy for me? Why was I so freaking angry? Why weren't they?
But here was a book full of women like me, who spoke of the deep ambivalence that came as often as unadulterated joy. Who were fighting against that sense of societal betrayal, just like I was. I felt justified. Or, at least, understood. And I felt a light come on in the distance, but it seemed so remote. Unreachable.
The resentment stayed with me for a long, long time–and yet disappeared in an instant.
I was talking with the person who had helped me finally overcome my panic disorder four years ago. I remember explaining how frustrated I was that I couldn't move past the anger. How that fact, in and of itself, felt like another failure to add to the (very) long list of my failures as a parent.
"You know," he said to me, "the opposite of resentment is gratitude."
And in that moment–right then–it all changed.
One thing I knew I wasn't was ungrateful. I had this little, perfect boy, with a little, perfect smile. I had a wonderful husband, who in my darkest moments in those early months loved me regardless (though lord knows how). Who picked me up at every possible turn. Who showed, in every possible way, his faith and confidence in me, and in my ability to find my way out of where I was.
How could I not be grateful, at every moment, that I had both of them to see me through?
I've long felt that every moment of our lives is a lesson learned. And here was my lesson, one that I seem to have to learn over and over again: whatever you give attention to grows stronger. If you focus on what you've lost, you are lost. Focus on what you've gained, and you're amazed at how much you truly have.
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