Seeking meaning in, and beyond, motherhood

Remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs from Psych 101? Well, it appears they've revamped it, replacing "self actualization", the realization of our creative and intellectual potential, with "mate acquisition", "mate retention" and "parenthood" at the tip top of the pyramid. Does this unfairly exclude single and/or childless people from the most esteemed echelons of life? Does every creative and intellectual impulse ultimately serve the master of the evolutionary drive to procreate?

Does life's ultimate purpose really boil down to parenthood?

This has been sticking in my craw since I first read about the revamping of the pyramid in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. As I wrestle with my own questions about what I should do with my life, I keep coming back to motherhood, because it's where I am, it's what defines my days and, LORD HELP ME, too many of my nights. Like the good little suburban cliche that I am, I've "always wanted to be a mother". But looking back on my early desire for motherhood, it clearly had more to do with pure baby lust than an actual conscious choice to responsibly parent another human being for the rest of my life. It probably had a whole lot to do with an evolutionary drive that screamed out "OMG! Baby toes! Eat them!" and "Do they make baby head perfume? Because THEY SHOULD" among other, even less seemly, things.

Then, sometime in my late twenties, right around the time I broke up with a guy who was no good for me and took up with someone who actually liked me for me, as I was, warts (figurative!) and all, I also started thinking more intently about why I'm here, what my purpose in life was. And, since I didn't have an obvious calling, religious or career-wise, I just didn't have an answer. So I bided my time, dancing because I loved it, teaching Pilates and massaging backs because it paid the bills, not really sure what I was doing in a larger sense but content enough to wait for my purpose, the meaning of my life, to find me.

Until motherhood.

Because motherhood hit me like a ton of messy, confusing bricks and I still haven't made sense of its impact on my identity, four and half years in. How can I be a mother AND be all these other things I want to be at the same time? Is being a mother my only true purpose in life? How can I focus on being anything else (a physical therapist, the long-time pipe dream, or a writer of some kind, the newest what-have-you-been-smoking-in-that-pipe dream) when I often feel overwhelmed with this one job I already have?

I'm reading "What Should I Do With My Life?" by Po Bronson and though I can safely say it's not exactly answering its own title's question for me, I love reading about how different people search for meaning and purpose. We all want the same things, no matter how different our choices and journeys. I want what everyone else does: to make an impact on the world, to change my corner of it for the better. I want my life to mean something. I want to leave something good behind when I'm gone. Something bigger, better than me.

Are my girls those "good things"? Is it unfair, not to mention unhealthy, to think about your children this way?

Like it or not, on purpose or not, for ill or for good, motherhood instantly made my life about something other than me. It meant I would leave something behind. It means my life has already had a profound effect. Motherhood intrinsically means I matter. Now it's up to me to make sure that my impact on my children is a positive one. Because I will live on through them, and through all the people they touch.

(No pressure!)

But I also search for other ways to matter. I know that soon enough I will not be so utterly consumed by the strains of motherhood and, without belittling the importance of mothering well, I want to add more than just my procreative and mothering self to the world.

I'll just come right out and say it: new pyramid be damned, I want self-actualization.


The highly sensitive blogger

Well, howdy!

I've obviously been in the midst of a blogging hiatus. I've been writing, of course, but after blathering on for several paragraphs, I pause, highlight, cut, paste and save, somewhere else.

There are two reasons for me not blogging much lately. First, after a summer of profound and sudden loss, we, as a family, are struggling with many challenges, one of which is understanding temperament and personality traits that have always been present but have recently been exacerbated. Much of this is too personal to share here, because most of it is not my story to tell. The rest is below.

I've always known I am a sensitive person - I weep at any commercial with a dog or a baby and HEAVEN HELP ME if there is a dog AND a baby - but I didn't honestly give my temperament as a whole much thought. Reading "The Highly Sensitive Child" and "The Highly Sensitive Person" earlier this summer was like hearing a clarion call. Suddenly, the knowledge that I am "highly sensitive" colors everything I see and do and think about myself and the world around me. So many things make sense, pieces of me are fitting into a greater whole in ways I never previously understood. Even after years of therapy, I've been simply blown away with new self-knowledge.

This has been deeply unsettling. Add in the other person who shares my temperament and her recent challenges and you have a recipe for MUCH journaling but not much blogging.

The other reason for a blogging hiatus is this: a fracquaintance (we've been to each other's house for several meals but I wouldn't exactly call him up on the phone to shoot the breeze) has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that has spread to his bones and brain. (Googling the survival rates for his cancer right before bedtime was not my best move of late. [Um, HELLO, dingbat. Remember you're highly sensitive?]) He is 36 years old. He's never smoked.

He has a wife and two children under five.

I know this happens. I just can't handle it happening to people I know, to "young", healthy people. Fathers. Not after our summer. We were just getting over thinking and talking about death all the time.

It simply breaks my heart into millions of tiny, sad, angry pieces.

I keep trying to write about something else. But thoughts about these profoundly sad and difficult issues are all that come out.

Hopefully writing this will help clear my mind and make room for something else, ANYTHING ELSE, to think, and write, about.



Dear Eliza,

At 16 months old, you are a blur.

You move quickly, quietly. The typical toddler zombie waddling has been replaced by a pace so quick, so sure-footed, I have to call it running. Any time I try to take your picture, it is a blur.
I did take many, many more photos of your sister at this age. If you ever give me grief for not taking as many photos of you, like aggrieved second children everywhere, I will bite my tongue to keep from saying, "Your sister stood still once in a while UNLIKE SOME PEOPLE I KNOW".

This is your face after being told a stern "No."

I work every day to see you for you, rather than hold you up against your sister for contrast. Your story is written next to your sisters, and after hers, so it is easy and natural to compare you two. Z is sensitive, E is a tank. Z was an early and expressive communicator, E was a gross-motor energizer bunny.

I hope I rise above these easy and simplistic comparisons more often than not.

I admit I was worried, just a bit, when you showed zero interest in sign language as a baby. After all, your sister started signing at 9 months and by a year, had over twenty signs. As a result of her early expressiveness, we were ardent baby sign evangelists and started manically signing at you when you were 9 months old. You looked aggrieved any time we tried to mold your hands into a sign or get you to look at us while we signed. You had other priorities, like gumming the plastic caps on the screws that keep the toilet attached to the floor and scaling the furniture with a purloined box of crackers clutched under your arm. After months of frustration, I almost gave up signing with you, sighing memorably: "I give up, she's just not interested.".

I think the day after I said that, you started signing "more", in your own time, in your own way, with your two pointer fingers tapping together. Thank you for the reminder that I shouldn't give up, that you are on your own journey, your own timetable.

Now you sign with great enthusiasm: "more", "all done", "milk", "water", "pacifier", "dog", "cat", "plane", "banana", "cracker", "cheese" and "book". You are working on saying your name ("Eye-Ah") and your sister's ("Yo-EE") and say "mama", "dada", and "ice" clear as a bell. Good thing we have an ice dispenser, because you do love it almost as much as your family.

Your new communication skills are a blessing in so many ways, but first and foremost because it means your screeching has abated. My eardrums thank you. Your words and signs thrill us all, because we get glimpses into your head. Apparently, you are ever hopeful that there is a dog behind every corner, though you'll settle for a cat. And crushed ice goes with every meal.

I need to learn the sign for "tomato" because you can spend inordinate amounts of time picking, sorting and squishing the tiny abundant fruit on our monster cherry tomato plant.
After you've been inside for awhile, we often find smushed green cherry tomatoes still clutched in your fingers. Or smeared on the couch cushions. Or in your hair.

So now, as I cuddle with you before bedtime, I sniff your hair and it smells sweet and earthy, like the sun and soil and sky all mixed together. It is different from the dreamy baby-head smell that I love so much. But it too is sweet and I love it too, so very much.


Your Clueless But Hopeful Mama



Z definitely gets her eyes from her daddy. I could stare into their eyes for hours, watching as the color changes with their moods, the light in the room, the color of their clothing. Sometimes the dark brown center dominates, other times it is reduced to a small starburst at the center of a green sea.

Her feet look like her Nana's. Petite and pretty with a high arch. Nothing like my grizzled, flattened feet, large and ungraceful even before they were damaged by years of dancing.

Her lips look like mine when I was her age, I think. Before the charming new above-the-lip wrinkles appeared. (W. T. F.?)

She's got her Daddy's beautiful wavy hair. I love to watch them both get curlier before my eyes as the humidity rises.

She definitely has the long torso/short arm thing that runs in my family for which I have already started apologizing. I'm sorry, sweetheart, but most clothing isn't made with us in mind. Waists on dresses are always too high, sleeves will be perpetually rolled up, midriffs are often unwittingly exposed.

These are the obvious inheritances. The fun ones.

Before Z's birth, we would conjure her up in our minds, piece by piece, as if we could pick and chose from a menu of our combined genetic material. We always focused on the good stuff.

She'll have your eyes-

No, YOUR eyes!

-and your mom's skin.

My dad's laugh!

Maybe your cousin's hair?

We were imagining, hoping, seeing only some of the possibilities.

I am now haunted by the not so positive possibilities. After a summer of loss, I can't help but look at our girls a little differently: what genetic curses might be lurking inside them? Our combined genetic pool now looks murky and terrifying, with sharks lying in wait. Will something grow and metastasize slowly like what killed their great grandmother? Or will something unexpectedly burst like what killed their grandfather? Will the same shark that took down my cousin emerge someday in their waters?

As I lie awake at night wondering what pieces of genetic code might prevail to bring our girls hardship, pain, and illness, I sometimes feel guilty for having had them in the first place. We brought them into this world knowing all the terrible things that could befall them. This responsibility takes my breath away. So, in the dark, clutching my pillow, I try to train myself to think like a Buddhist: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. The curse of being human is our inherent imperfection, our inescapable mortality. Much as I wish to in the early morning hours, there is little I can do to change the known and unknown genetic traits we have bestowed upon our girls. I can only try to guide them through their own blessed, imperfect life.

If I really could take back Z's long torso, would I?

If I could have known what exact form their inevitable pain will take, would I have chosen not to have had children? (Anyone care to help me rewrite that sentence? After 347 rewrites, I fear it is beyond hope.)

I look forward to discovering whether E's fingers will resemble my Grandma's once they leave their chubby sausage stage and whose voice hers will echo and whether she will escape the plague of the long torso. And I pray for the strength to accept our girls' every other inheritance, too.

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