Let me set the scene: it is early spring and a little yellow car grunts and glides its way through several mountainous passes carrying two very different yet connected women to a small and vibrant beach town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. One of them is dreadlocked and wiry, free as a bird in every sense, and whom spends her days on the open ocean waters in a kayak or traversing wintery embankments on snowshoes. The other is dark haired and tired looking, weary from sleepless nights and the worries that come with childrearing. She is in a different phase of life and for the first time since the birth of her child, embarking on a journey akin to the many she used to take to fill her lungs and soul with fresh air and freedom.
Last week I left my daughter for the first time. Everyone has since asked me “Was it hard to leave her? To be away from her?” The answer to the first question is- yes. I struggled and stalled to get out the door, thinking of reasons and things to stay and continue to prepare for my absence; I made playlists of her favorite songs and lists of her bedtime routine, breast milk storage instructions and potential schedules for napping and playing. My mind raced the days leading up to my trip with worst-case scenarios involving hospitals and car wrecks and tsunamis with 200 miles between her and I. But the real, down and dirty, call me a terrible mother if you want to, answer to the second question is: not really.
There is a myth out there, perpetuated by many including myself, that says that to be a good mother you must live in a permanent state of worry and exhaustion. “Look at me! Look how much I am struggling for my child! I am so tired! So weary from food prep and worry! I haven;t plucked my eyebrows, slept more than 3 hours in a row or taken a shit alone since my child was born! Aren’t I a wonderful mother?! Please someone validate my efforts!!!!!!!!!” With 200 miles and four hours of solid driving between myself and my mothering, I was finally able to see the “earth martyr” I had been making of myself this past year.
There were moments I missed my daughter, seeing a family enjoying a board game in our lodge, or a child and their dog playing on the beach. But I didn’t miss wrestling through a diaper change or having a half conversation while rushing about moving potential hazards out of the way… and I certainly didn’t miss playing cat and mouse at bedtime with the multiple wake ups I am accustomed to dealing with. I had nearly 48 hrs of presence. My mind felt washed by the lapping of waves and my own interrupted thoughts and I began to feel myself returning. I needed every second of that break.
My girlfriends are self-lovers- they honor their bodies and spirits in a conscious and celebratory way. They are nurturers and each moment with them was profoundly nourishing. We did salt scrubs and made meals and laughed and laughed. Different as our current realities are, we connected effortlessly. The friend who we were visiting, is a massage therapist for whom each day is spent helping people connect with and ground their bodies. She embodies a released yin like approach to life and has hands that can heal the weariest of warriors. I couldn’t picture two women more capable of mirroring gently back to me the imbalance I had been experiencing.
I subscribe to a child centered, gentle form of parenting that focuses on keeping your child close and cultivating a strong bond. The purpose (as I understand it) is to know your child deeply so that you can navigate each moment in the way that is best for the uniqueness that is them. The problem I have been having is that as am entering the toddler stage, where my daughter’s wants and needs are being expressed with equal non verbal ferocity, I am not connected enough with MYSELF to know how to respond. And so I become dogmatic. I look to books, the internet, listservs and other mothers who, as important and knowledgeable as all of these potential resources can be, are all outward searching for what can only in the end be inward answers.
One thing is now very clear- I cannot continue in this fashion and be an effective mother and balanced woman; both of which my husband, my daughter and I deserve to experience. Also- balanced is just so so so much better than best. So let’s stop reaching for the latter. I still believe in gentleness, and in patience, and in a natural flow to things that supports childhood exploration and a healthy foundation of love and trust. I think the world is a weird place and mostly society has it backwards. But I must fill my well. And my marriage must also be valued along with our child’s needs. If I, or we, fall apart- how can that be what she needs?
I’m not sure where there is room for negotiation in our current flow, but I am going to look for it. It is interesting to me that Attachment Parenting follows out of the Continuum Theory that says that children benefit from both closeness to their mother/parents but also that they be exposed to the day to day goings on and not be at the epi-center constantly. For that is neither healthy nor natural. And that Dr. Sears (father of Attachment Parenting) outlines the baby B’s very clearly… one of which is Balance and Boundaries… but this is rarely discussed in depth or honored among the others. To me this is the most fascinating of all! And the one that makes all the others possible!
I have heard and seen the judgment in others when I have admitted I am struggling. I am a cast away between the two very clear continents of main-stream parenting and child-led-everything parenting. Or at least- I want to be. But it’s a lonely island on which we, devoted yet dying to be a reasonable human with a balanced life, parents reside. When you struggle with an issue as contentious as sleep (which I do nightly) you hear either “Well its your fault for still nursing her and letting her sleep with you!” Or “Gentle night weaning usually happens around 2, sometimes 3”. Neither of those responses flies for me. Neither supports me. And I am guessing that there are a lot more people out there like me.
These dilemmas haunt me daily (and nightly!)- They are I suppose, the meaty bits of parenting. They are the steps of this journey that is turning my heart and hands into those of a woman with Amazonian like strength- holy shit I am tough! And ridiculously patient! Who knew!? But I wish to struggle less and glide more. I wish to trust my gut and go with it. I don’t want to give away my power with every 3am google search of what is normal, or what to do, or articles of Mayim Bayalik swearing that AP wasn’t a cause of her marriages breakdown despite continuing to co-sleep with her 3+ year old (in a separate bed to that of her husband).
As I laid (alone!) on the king sized bed of our beachside cabin watching the waves I felt no pain. I was a woman alone in her own space. I was a mother. And I was also a lot of other things. Ideas and song lyrics flowed as did romantic thoughts and a hopeful presence. I felt the totality of my life fill me. Of which mothering my beautiful daughter was but one magnificent aspect.
It is so easy to lose myself in love. It always has been. I have cast aside friends for boyfriends, my homeland for my husband and most recently myself for my daughter. But what she needs is me. All of me. And until recently I have been no where in the equation.
As I neared my parents house I had an excited and a nervous feeling. What would my daughter do when she saw me? Would she scream? Cry? Laugh? Shun me forever and need years of therapy for my abandonment? I came in the door and saw her perched on my Dad’s lap watching a youtube video of the singer Feist. I crouched in the doorway and waited for her to notice me. When she did she smiled a big smile, hopped off his lap and tottered over to me with her arms open wide. It was really nice, but it was no big deal. No drama, just love. And guess what? Even after two nights away- we are still attached.
Even as I sit here writing I can feel my thoughts wandering to “Is she okay? Are my parents mad that I am still writing? What should I make her for dinner?” and I am realizing that having these thoughts does not make me a better mother… in fact it just makes me a shittier writer. I have struggled to find my place in all of this, who I am and where I belong… I have always been an outcast and a floater. No one way has ever worked for me. No one group has ever suited my social needs. My way is an intuitive one that can only be authentically accessed through an odd combination of alone, creative and wildly social time. I guess I live on my little island between two shores, always have and always will.
I like my island. We play good music here. There are cocktails at 5 but no one gets out of hand. People talk about parenting but they also talk about art and music and sex and world affairs. The women are a bold type but all with gentle hearts. You can join us but you’ll be frisked for your dogma and your judgment upon entry to our port. We have a no tolerance policy.