A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my long, solitary days with no company but that of a child. I know my sentiments are shared by many a parent who has looked down the long end of a day, and then many days, of tending children. But I also got a surprising number of troubled or worried responses, fearing for my happiness, or wondering whether I actually enjoy being a mother at all. A second class of responses included gentle encouragement to enjoy this time while I can, as their childhoods are fleeting. This is risky territory, of course, as the last thing any parent of young children wants to hear is “cherish every moment, for they grow up so fast.”
As I pondered these conversations, what struck me most was the consistent use of the word “enjoy.” Did I not enjoy being a mother? Shouldn’t I try to enjoy these times while I have them? The thing of it is, there is a great deal, maybe the majority of many days raising children, that are not at all enjoyable. But happiness is not the same as pleasure.
When I tried to think of a parallel experience to offer up to those who have not had children, or who have never been their primary caretaker, I thought at first that there was no apt comparison. That maybe you just have to live it. But as I examined the idea further, it became clear that just about anything we deeply value is not all that much fun most of the time. Getting my degree in veterinary medicine was a daily toil of mental drudgery, glued, eight hours a day, to a seat that was in turn bolted to the floor. Once that portion was through, on we went to clinical rotations, where 40 days might pass without one day off, and I fell into a fitful sleep many nights dreading the sound of the pager buzzing at 3am. Was I enjoying myself? Was I having fun? I didn’t quit though, because it mattered to me. And it had its moments.
Then there’s running. I run for the sanity it restores, for the feeling afterward, for the strength it gives. Many, if not most, individual runs are unpleasant in some way. My chest constricts on a plume of freezing air and wood smoke in winter; I stagger in stew thick humidity in summer; in all seasons, my legs sometimes just feel clumsy and leaden and I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not a pleasure, or enjoyable a lot of the time. There are those occasional moments when I feel like I’m floating, effortless, and the road is clear and quiet ahead of me, and the streams braid through the woods beside me. I run for the things running gives me, and because those moments do come sometimes, and I never know when. Being a runner gives me a deep happiness, but a lot of the time, I hate it as I’m doing it.
That’s what motherhood is like, at least for me. Only it’s compounded. In vet school, my mind’s presence was commanded in those lecture hall, but my body was not taxed. I could knit, make embroidered pillows, sketch, so long as my ears were open and I was awake. When I run, my body is taxed, but my mind is freed to travel. When I am home alone with my young son, I must devote my body to his particular needs, and my mind to his tyranny too. When I daydream during a game of Connect Four, and murmur vague assent to something he’s saying that I’m not attending to, I get his little tyrannical face in my face demanding, “Mom! Did you hear me? Wasn’t that a remarkable and good move I just made?”
To tell me to cherish every moment is stating a case that need not be made. I am conscious every day of how I love these boys in a way unlike the love I’ve borne anyone else in the world, or will ever bear. I am conscious of their growing up, and I have no desire to rush it, even were that possible. I do, in fact, cherish every moment of being their mother. That does not mean I enjoy it. It does not mean it’s fun all the time, or even most of the time. It doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable.
Walking the halls of my college the other day, I overheard a student say to another, “Yeah, but I mean the homeworks are so fucking boring.” This is the worst condemnation of anything in this college, of course. A boring class is a bad class. An entertaining teacher is a good teacher. Set up under that rubric, parenting is the worst thing one could possibly do to oneself, because it is profoundly boring, and irritating, and often rather unpleasant. Parenthood is a gross violation of the Ben and Jerry’s bumper sticker philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
One night this week, I was lugging laundry up the stairs, checking on the soup on the stove, and on the boys sledding in the dark outside. I called Christophe, who was on his way home, to warn him not to run them over when he pulled in. Laundry basket digging into my side, a headache of two days’ duration pounding in my brain, and looking down at ancient food particles ground into the rug, I heard myself saying, “The boys are out there,” and I was yanked up out of myself. I was tired, irritated, having no fun at all, and those words “the boys” were like a plucked string within me. “the boys. my boys. I have sons. We are we and we have sons,” ricocheted around my aching brain. It does nothing for the pain, but I have room within me for the drudgery, the toil, and the wonder, the gratitude that is its undercurrent.
So don’t worry about me; I’m utterly happy with my lot. Happy and content, with everything I could ever have dreamt of. Just not always enjoying myself. It’s not always fun, but that’s not why I signed on in the first place. One day, when this is all over and they’re grown up, I will have my freedom back, but pierced through with nostalgia. I also know, there is not treasure enough on the Earth to entice me to rewind to the beginning and do this all over again. It is the province of young parents to lament and mewl, but we know the glorious mess we’re in. It is the province of old parents to remind us that it has an end. Blessed be the mess, and blessed be the end.