This writing is more personal than most posts on this site. I was encouraged to make it available, even so, in the hope it would shine a light.
The bravest thing I ever did was have children, although I don’t recall summoning courage at the outset. As much as I had wanted to be a mother, through and through, I had no idea what I was signing up for. How love would take my heart in its fist and crush it. How fear would assume a mighty presence in my day-to-day, like an unwelcome creature come to live among us, my son and daughter and their father and I.
But like with most situations that demand raw guts, once I saw the enormity of what motherhood was asking of me, it was too late to change my mind.
How do any of us hold up under the strain of such love, in the face of such undeniable powerlessness?
Fear: something awful would happen to one of my children. I learned CPR when my firstborn was a toddler. Seeing him put all kinds of things into his little mouth, I taught myself the Heimlich maneuver. With both babies, I was obsessed with the prospect of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (which in those days had little in the way of theory about how to minimize the risk). Maybe not surprising I was consumed by that fear: the nurse-midwife who was supposed to have attended my first birth was not able to come, and the reason turned out to be that her own infant son had just died of SIDS. That close-to-home possibility worked its way into my maternal body, like an insidious virus.
With the first pregnancy, when I learned it was a boy I was carrying, I calculated the year my son would turn eighteen — the age he would have to sign up for the draft. (Having grown up myself in the Vietnam War era, I was never free of the specter of draft for a young man.)
I was consumed with newspaper stories of the deaths of local children, whether from illness or accident. A poet in those times, I wrote reams of poems on the subject. As if maybe writing poetry would keep the monster away from my own children.
Early in my baby boy’s life, I went for my first mammogram, which didn’t go well. So in case there weren’t already plenty of reasons to be ill at ease, now there was the nightmare prospect of my own early demise settling in like foul weather that never cleared up. It wasn’t to be the last mammogram that produced worrisome results. (Although there never was a cancer diagnosis, because of the succession of biopsies, the ongoing experience was of death hovering over the life of the family.)
As my little ones grew, there was the steadily gathering evidence that notwithstanding all my vigilance and good intentions, I could not guarantee my children’s safety and well-being. Let alone anything approximating fulfillment or enduring happiness.
If somebody had pulled me aside, when they were young, and whispered that one day my fun-loving little boy would be a heroin addict, or that my bright-and-shiny daughter would eventually be sunk in crippling depression and anxiety (and more than one debilitating chronic illness), I might have just stepped in front of a truck then and there, certain I would be unable to bear such things.
What mother, what father, doesn’t have their own stories? How do any of us hold up under the strain of such love, in the face of such undeniable powerlessness?
* * * * *
It is something of a miracle that I survived. So have both of my children, now well into adulthood. I’m confident both would report they’re even happy a good part of the time. Though not because their mother has made them so.
The real miracle occurred when my son was sixteen and my daughter was fourteen. Something stepped inside the maternal heart and turned it inside out, removing fear and all its ghastly minions. Overnight I went from being my familiar fearful self to being entirely calm in the face of even the most dire situation. And there was one crisis after another, in those days, casting a bright light on my changed interior. The thoroughness of the relief! Again and again some life development made it vivid: there was something inside that remained its sweet, calm self, no matter what occurred. I had no idea how to account for what had happened to make life this new way it had become. But was I grateful! Mystified, to be sure, but slack-jawed with gratitude. Washed and washed in relief.
There was one and then the other of my young people going out behind the wheel of a car. The sound of the tires backing down the driveway, the shift into drive, disappearing into dark silence. Me having no idea what the night might hold for one or both of them. (I hadn’t forgotten my own teen-aged years, swept up in exhilarating forces, convinced of my immortality.)
Sitting in the quiet living room, I was awash in the awareness that a) anything awful could happen out there, and b) I had no control over it whatever (notwithstanding my clear rules, all the heartfelt guidance). Yet how was this acquaintance with reality no longer a recipe for godawful anxiety, for playing made-up movies over and over in my head: the car crashed into a tree, a six-pack of beer in the car, risky sex?
Miraculously I was able to thoroughly enjoy my evening.
Farther along into the harrowing years, there were the times of the phone ringing in the middle of the night, and it was the emergency room, or the police, and once, a homeless shelter where my son had been delivered in a squad car, post-arrest. Each time the phone pulled me out of sleep, there was a looking square in the face the severity of the circumstances. Yet again and again the primary atmosphere of my getting dressed, then driving to the shelter (the hospital, the police station, wherever it was), was a profound equanimity. At the same time, my mind functioned the best it ever had in my life. Such clarity attended decisions to be made, courses of action to be taken. No fear anywhere. Only love. And always, the vivid awareness of the limitations of this vast love to turn things around. Life seemed to need to take its course, just as it was.
* * * * *
What was most conspicuously noticeable about all of this (and there were to be many years of difficulty, well past the teen-aged times) was this: love was somehow bigger than it had ever been before, when fear had been running the show. Love for my children, surely, but love for anyone, everyone: strangers, animals, even people I once could not abide. Love was unconditional, without boundary. Nothing seemed to be walled off from it. It was the atmosphere in which all of life played out. How strange it all was! Completely new terrain. Love was vast and diffuse enough to be comfortable in the presence of another’s terrible pain (or my own), the enduring uncertainty about everything, the steady knowledge of not being able to control or predict how anything would go.
None of it — not my children’s struggles or the “imperfections” in any of life, current or past — felt as though it was about me. This was in marked contrast with how it always had been before, when I took my sense of self from being (among other things) a mother. Maybe in a way that was the biggest miracle of all. It was like “I” wasn’t even there anymore, at least not in the way I had long experienced myself, when my inner state was determined by how things were going “out there.” By how I felt I was succeeding or failing at one thing or another.
And yet — and yet (how could this be?) — there was, and there is, the most exquisite tenderness toward each of my children. Nothing held back, nothing at risk, nothing in my heart subject to being bounded or threatened, or turned to stone.
If anyone had told me, before everything changed, that I didn’t love my children absolutely, I would have said they were mad. Yet there was no mistaking how fear and attachment had made love small, relatively speaking. How much of the experience of loving them was tainted by attachment to a sense of myself. None of this was clear, of course, except in retrospect.
Fear and self-definition take up space in the heart, putting up walls against love, as an illusory protection from reality.
In the years when my son was in love with heroin, my heart never was tempted to shut down to him. Even when I steadily lived with the knowing he could die at any time, and even as I knew I could not save him (after so many years of trying), there was no temptation to take refuge in self-protection, to wall off the maternal heart, to attempt to brace myself against the prospect of facing every parent’s worst nightmare. How could this be?
Nor was I in the least deluded about the agony that would come, were I to get that worst of all possible phone calls. I did know that I’d be able to be with that too, if it came. Somehow.
* * * * *
Back to the business of bravery being asked of a parent. I see now it isn’t courage that peaceful parenthood requires, so much as it’s the ability to surrender. It’s allowing love to take completely over — love that’s unconditional, undiluted by fear and a sense of a self at risk. It’s being able to really be with reality, to realize the daunting limitation of our ability to shape or protect a child (at whatever age).
It’s surrender that’s enabled what the last fifteen years have been, since fear evaporated. Nor do I take any credit for that. I didn’t “decide” to surrender. It simply stopped occurring to me to resist, to do anything to put myself at a distance from life, just as it was. I became viscerally acquainted with the profound absence of control, along the way losing track of the old familiar self. Love was at last able to take up all the space once constrained by fear and the longing to manipulate life, making it possible to live in reality with ease.
Given that life-as-it-is would seem to be contrary to profound well-being, this development was truly a head-scratcher. Which must be why it’s called “the peace that passeth understanding.”
I take no credit for my son’s and my daughter’s present status of approximate happiness. But am I glad of it? Do I bow my head under the weight of the joy I feel in the presence of it? You bet I do. Do I have any expectation the well-being will sustain, for either of them? I am not a fool. Life is the great teacher.