Friday, May 29, 2009

The Other Mother

This is a picture of me at a Halloween party with my daughter and her friend. This was shortly before I began to get the feeling that not everyone appreciated my elaborate face paint. First, it was the funny looks from the other moms, all of whom, without exception, were dressed as witches. Not scary witches. Generic witches with pointy black hats and black or purple dresses. Their looks askance didn't bother me too much. I thought, Maybe they're jealous because their costumes aren't as interesting. It was when three and a half year old Romeo saw me from across the room and collapsed in tears on the floor that I thought, Hm. Maybe I've overdone it a bit. When little Charley Mae, not yet two years old, began to visibly shake from the safety of her mother's lap, and yell, summoning her limited vocabulary, "GO 'WAY! GO 'WAY!" I had to face facts. I had seriously misjudged the situation. I had gone too far. These mothers were looking at me, not with envy, but with justified concern. I was scaring the children. 

Those of you who know me will attest to the fact that I strive, perhaps a little too hard, to be a very good mother. I rarely pay homage to the shadow side of this good mother experience. Robert Johnson writes, "The persona is what we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world... The shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know" (p. 4). He goes on, "But the refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own--the shadow life.... If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage or some indiscretion that slips past us..." (p. 4-5).

Yes, and you find yourself, the loving, breast feeding, co-sleeping, super attached mom, dressed as a terrifying ghoul at a kid's party, scaring other people's children. What was I thinking? you wonder as you retreat to the bathroom to frantically remove your make-up with baby wipes, wondering if you should make a short speech attempting to explain yourself. "I'm an artist, you see, and I just haven't really had a chance to paint in a while, or to express myself creatively, in any way. I used to sing in clubs, I mean, I really had quite a life, and I was playing with the face paint before we left the house, you know, and I guess I got a little out of control... Did I mention I'm studying to be a psychotherapist?"

Better, perhaps, not to say anything. 

The shadow side of motherhood is dreadfully tabu. I remember flying into a rage when my daughter wouldn't go to sleep one night. I felt so awful, I wanted to die. I called my friend Caren who reassured me. "You're such a good mom. It's just really hard." It is really hard when you haven't slept for more than three hours in a row for months, and you haven't been able to be physically separate from your nursing baby, and you just want an hour alone before you start nursing again. You just want the use of both arms for a brief time. Maybe longer. And your baby is screaming her head off, in a way that is biologically designed to completely freak your system out, and the only thing that makes it stop is sacrificing everything you want for yourself in that moment and picking her up. 

After I talked to Caren, I googled "motherhood and rage" and found almost nothing. Thank God for Anne Lamott, who had a piece about screaming at her teenaged son. The dearth of acknowledgment of the dark side of mothering, what I like to call The Other Mother, was staggering and depressing and a clear communication: This is not acceptable. We don't talk about this. We don't write about it. 

Well, I do. I'm writing about it now. And hopefully it will provide solace for those who find themselves on the shadow side of their conscious desire to be what the culture expects of mothers--impossibly patient, endlessly loving, and above all, self-sacrificing. I would love to hear from other mothers anywhere and everywhere about how we can honor the shadow side of this experience in ways that protect our children and preserve our sanity. What rituals might we perform in honor of The Other Mother?


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  2. I had such a moment last night. It was graduation day for the high school and a bunch of my friends/colleagues planned a night out for a celebratory dinner. They chose a restaurant in Brooklyn, about an hour away. I wanted to go but I knew the logistics would be tricky. I arranged to bring Isa to the babysitter’s, but had to pick him up by 9pm, which is when my babysitter’s kids go to bed. That gave me exactly 1½ hours to actually be at the dinner. As I watched my married, mostly childless colleagues laugh with abandon throwing back glass after glass of wine and fine scotch, I kept checking my watch and refusing refills as I anticipated the approach of my witching hour. I surveyed the table and noted that of the 15 people there, only four had children and they were all men. They had wives at home taking care of the kids. I was the only mother there. I realized how isolated I felt and angry too. I was having so much fun. I wanted to stay out all night with them, I wanted to bar hop and get drunk and sleep in the next day. Instead, I left the party early, picked up my son and got him ready for bed not without a low simmer of resentment.
    So what do I do to honor the “other” mother? On occasion, I let her take a glass of wine (or two) to the bathroom when I give Isa a bath. I’ve also begun to honor the anger I feel inside when I find myself forcing myself to do something I really don’t want to be doing. For example, when Isa insists on being held and it’s just not appropriate, like when I’m cooking, I feel a wave of fury wash over me and I simply put him down and say “No, Mommy can’t hold you right now. My hands are busy.” Of course he gets upset, but if I don’t honor that anger right then and there, it simmers, festers and eventually explodes, causing more damage than the sniffles he has when he can’t always get his way.

  3. You know, that Shadow Husband dude is a real motherfucker. I will probably never write about it, because I like being married.

  4. By the way Mick, that facepaint is awesome! Yes, probably terrifying for the little ones, but what's most important was what did Elva think of it? In the picutre, she's seems pretty psyched to be at the party with her amazingly creative mom.

  5. Yeah, she wasn't freaked out by it, nor was her friend Vivian...

  6. That's Okay, Matt, I mean, Anonymous Shadow Husband Dude. Andrea will never find out.

  7. Well I think your face paint is cool. I don't know what to think about a bunch of little kids who can't get with something fun and creative. Oops, is that the shadow mommy talking? If you bust the weird stuff out early you inoculate them to needless fear. I love hearing from the shadow mom, bring her on!

    thanks for the shout out - :)

  8. I was surprised when you washed the paint off Mick...I think the kids would have gotten over it (and who cares about the moms) I just wish I were so creative..hence generic witch outfit

  9. Now I feel bad for insulting your costume. This is another case of the shadow. It's a hall of mirrors of shadowy weirdness. I played up the fact that so many moms were dressed as witches in order to make myself look even more ridiculous when it became clear that not only were they not jealous; they were rightly concerned for their children! So there's that. The truth is, I loved the witch costume. And I guess I hear what you're saying about the face paint, and appreciate it, but Charley Mae was shaking visibly. I couldn't have lived with myself. I like that some kids were cool with it, but I was one of those kids who was terrified of Santa Claus, much less the grim reaper, so I empathized. Anyway, thanks for your comment, and you are perfectly creative, in my opinion.

  10. I hope the purpose of a blog is to be guilt free. Don't worry about my feelings(Or anyones), I appreciate the honesty of your post and get where it's coming from. My response was in support of you, girl..Scare the children (and their parents)!! Don't edit yourself for others sake, it just holds back the Shadow!!!

  11. Andrea Peterman writes:
    When T was a baby, I confided in a friendthat at times I wanted to kill my husband in the middle of the night ... simply because I was up for the 3rd time in 2 hours, nursing our baby, and all he was doing was NOT doing the same thing. I remember being out of my mind with rage, and while it was because of the baby, it was easier to redirect it toward the other grown-up in the bed. I think I'm handling things better the second time around, at least with the sleep deprivation, but a couple months ago, late in the evening, I said to the little guy, in a raised voice, right in his face, "YOU HAVE TO SLEEP NOW! I HAVE TO SLEEP NOW!" Then I laid him down on the bed and started crying. I didn't even use bad language and I still felt bad. Newborns suck. Ha! That has a nice double- (or triple-) meaning. They suck at our breasts, they suck the life out of us, they suck because they don't let us sleep.

  12. An Inner Worker who prefers to remain anonymous wrote this:

    (She herself laughed at the fact that she couldn't "own" it.)

    how true...there is no place for the shadow of the self sacrificing mom.
    i can't tell you how much guilt i feel when i am resentful of how all consuming two little one's can be. it's okay to
    say, "oh i'm really exhausted, i need to some time for myself" versus voicing how angry or resentful or drained i might feel
    because god forbid anyone think i'm a bad mother. we have so much invested in our identification with being
    the conscious good mother. it took me the longest time to come to terms with the fact that i hated being a stay at home mom.
    it wasn't for me, no matter how much i tried to rationalize it.

    i think i told you once that i had this ego fantasy that being a super conscious attachment oriented parent would compensate
    and repair the trauma that was my childhood, especially the fact that my mother's illness made it impossible for her to mother me.
    but the truth for me is that it doesn't.

    i want to give my children everything....but i still get triggered (and feel so guilty) when i know that my boys will never ever know
    what it's like not to have such conscientious maternal attention and care.
    they will not only never appreciate it, they will take it for granted, and feel entitled to it.

    obviously, i would never ever wish my childhood on anyone, but how can you value something when you don't
    know what it is to experience deprivation and loss?

    maybe that's the bigger question.

  13. As a soon-to-be mom, I have not had the full blown-out experience of the shadow mother, but I am processing a lot of dark unconscious stuff around the impending "loss" of my "identity" (identity being mutable phenomena that I often attach a singular, rigid meaning to) and how hard it is to be honest about all the feelings that brings. I really appreciates Mick's honesty in relation to this and agree it is something our culture shies away from to the detriment of all involved. However, I do disagree with the folks who thought she should have kept the face paint on and that the others around her should have just dealt with her "creativity." I think Mick was very astute in taking it off and clearly understood that her need to express herself did not take precedent over the disregulated emotions of some confused 2 year olds. In so doing she taught Elva a very important lesson in respect, empathy and interpersonal flexibility.As a teacher in a private school where so many parents don't instill in their children the moral code necessary to get along with others respectfully, I am heartened by Mick's choices and thought processes.