I was raised to believe that happiness and motherhood were inherently incompatible, if not irreconcilable. I learned from my mother’s example. Mothers did not live to be happy. Mothers lived to be useful. Mothers lived to be productive.
I don’t remember my mother ever talking about being happy. I do remember her always working, laboring, being useful to others. My mother’s hands seemed like they never stopped moving. If she wasn’t pulling strings off string beans or picking worms off tomatoes in her garden, she was peeling apples for a pie or peaches for a cobbler. Or, she was sewing us or herself a new outfit, or turning our old outgrown clothes into quilts. Over time, arthritis made sewing too difficult, but she kept cooking and gardening until the day she took her last breath.
As infants, my children were born pushy, in that way that is socially acceptable only for babies and cats. My daughter came out stubborn, demanding and unapologetic. My son, on the other hand, used his fat cheeks, bright eyes and big smiles to get whatever he wanted. He didn’t want much, except he was always hungry. His suck was lazy and inefficient. He would have been perfectly content to lay on my chest, my nipple in his greedy mouth, grazing, sleeping and pooping all day. Some days, he did exactly that. He was a happy baby. He cried only when his big-eyed Puss in Boots look didn’t get him what he wanted. His older sister interpreted his baby babble and told us what he wanted. Either she was a great translator, or he was just content to have her do his bidding.
But I wasn’t the selfless paragon of virtuous motherhood that my mother appeared to be. Even as I submitted to the expectation that I no longer had needs that mattered, I found it chafing. By the time my son was three months old, I began to fantasize about leaving him alone in his crib and going out for a walk. For just a few minutes, I would tell myself. Just to the Starbucks on 138th and Broadway. Just from my then-home at 140th Street and Amsterdam to Central Park and back. Not far at all. I wouldn’t be gone more than…15 minutes…20 minutes…an hour, hour and a half, tops. What could happen to a baby in a crib in an hour and a half?
I never actually left him alone. I sacrificed my need for a few moments of peace and solitude for his need for warmth, comfort, and a continuous supply of breast milk trickling down his throat. Eventually, I decided to take him to our babysitter a few times a week, a few hours a week. The solution was so simple, I felt silly for not having thought of it sooner. I left the nanny with plenty of pumped milk and formula, and drove up to Bronxville to take a writing class at Sarah Lawrence College.
I felt free for the first time in months – perhaps even years. As my law practice became more demanding, I’d had little time to write for pleasure, and even less time after the kids were born. The writing class reminded me of being an undergraduate, when the possibilities for my life had seemed endless, not limited by the demands of marriage and motherhood. My then-husband found the writing class, the babysitting, all of it frivolous and ridiculous. I had chosen to take an extended maternity leave because I wanted to be home with my newborn son. How dare I seek a respite from the baby I had been so desperate to nurture?
I pushed back. I kept taking my son to the sitter, kept taking my class at Sarah Lawrence. And I felt guilty. When the class ended, I didn’t take another writing class until my son was fourteen.
After my divorce, being a working single mom with a demanding corporate law job only served to water that seedling of guilt and make it flourish. I felt guilty about being that mom who couldn’t attend every second grade “publishing party,” who never baked goodies for the class art gallery show, who snuck into recitals late and spent the entire time answering emails on my mobile phone.
I tried to make up for it by going into overdrive every weekend. I enrolled my kids in every form of athletic endeavor they were willing to try, and spent my weekends driving them all over Manhattan and Randall’s Island for practice and games. When there were no games or practices, I made sure we saw every new kids’ movie opening weekend – we had to go opening weekend, or not at all. Afterwards, we would have dinner at the latest cool new Harlem restaurant. I didn’t have my mother’s homemaking skills, but I could give my kids the types of opportunities and experiences my family had never been able to afford. Like my own mother, I stayed in constant motion, trying to service my kids’ needs at the expense of my own.
My kids seemed to notice only what was missing: their father’s absence, and their mother’s half-presence. Every weekend, I would collapse out of physical and mental exhaustion, feeling that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be the mother they deserved.
Outside of my therapist’s office, I rarely considered what it might take to make me happy.
I sacrificed my need for a few moments of peace and solitude for his need for warmth, comfort, and a continuous supply of breast milk trickling down his throat.
My kids now have rich, full lives of their own. When my son entered high school, I decided to pursue a long-held dream: to go back to school and get my MFA in Creative Writing.
But I am still learning how to balance my kids’ needs and happiness with my own.
Recently, I won a couple of awards in my MFA program – one for a stage play, a second for a creative nonfiction essay. At the same time, my children are going through difficult periods in their own lives. The validation that I’d done the right thing by finally pursuing my MFA came at a time when my children needed my time and attention more than ever.
When I saw the email inviting the award winners to a formal awards ceremony, my first instinct was to try to ignore the email. With children in crisis, I had no idea how to celebrate winning an award — even though it was an award for the one thing I’d always wanted to succeed at doing. If my children had been toddlers and not teenagers, I wouldn’t have hesitated — I would have barely acknowledged even receiving the award, much less celebrated it.
My second instinct said, “Go to the ceremony.”
I had a choice to make.
Seemingly of their own volition, my fingers typed two emails. The first was an RSVP for the awards event. The second email notified my supervisor that I would be out of the office for a few hours the day of the ceremony. I steeled myself for his response telling me that I would have to miss the event, that my presence at a work meeting was far too important.
“Congratulations on your award!” my boss replied instead.
I realized I would be sending exactly the wrong message — to my children, to my school and to myself — if I declined to participate in a ceremony honoring my biggest writing success thus far.
One of my professors gave me a rose. Another read a lovely tribute he had written to commemorate my winning work. I was moved to speak, and then to tears. I was awed by the talent of everyone in the room. I was humbled to be considered worthy of being honored alongside them.
When the ceremony ended, I returned to work. I showed my co-workers my awards certificates. I brought them home and showed them to my children. Neither of my children asked me how I could be joyful in that moment of crisis. No one called me selfish for being happy. Everyone was as happy for me as I was for myself.
Like my mother, like most of the women I know, it is unimaginably hard for me to make room for myself, to serve myself before serving others. But when I chose to accept my writing awards in person, I realized it was okay to put myself first for a minute — that it didn’t make me less devoted to my job or my children. Taking a little time to bask in my own glow has instead fortified me for the battles that lie ahead with my children. Doing so consistently is vital for my own survival.
I’m finding you really do have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
And then you have to remember to breathe.