Motherhood and multitudes

My friend’s kids recently went on a trip with their papa, leaving her in the house alone for a whole week. After a year of being piled on top of one another, I could hardly imagine what that kind of disentangling of limbs and energies would be like for me. Would I have withdrawal symptoms, shaking at the absence of my babies’ bodies? Would I revert to my 25-year-old self, eating nachos for every meal and sleeping until—gasp—9am? Would I just sit on my couch staring at the walls and trying to integrate the last year of mayhem?

When I talked about it with my girls, I asked them, “What do you think I would do if you guys left for a whole week?”

Without skipping a beat Maya said, “You would read, go on hikes with your friends, and sleep a lot.”

Part of me wishes she said, “You would write the Great American Novel and go to a really wild dance party on a pier.” But most of me was honored that she really sees me as I am now—the places where I find pleasure and restoration, my joy and my needs. It’s pretty basic, and yet so elusive somehow in the midst of this life layered on life layered on life layered on life…

I like all the lives—the me that knows exactly how much to burn Maya’s waffle and the me that devours cultural criticism about Black performance and the me that writes this newsletter and the me that replies to SOS texts from best friends when they’re drowning in their own layers and layers of lives.

As Whitman famously said, I do contain multitudes.

One of the most troubling parts of becoming a mother for me, was the unmistakable sensation that my multitudes were shrinking. Keeping a baby alive is such an all-consuming, self-obliterating season and when it’s over—not like a light switch, but a dimmer—you have to reconstitute yourself.

It’s physical, for sure. So physical. But it’s not just that. It’s your very soul. You have to create a new self who is both mother and other things, things you have once been, but will never be again in the same way. Which is why it’s not like remembering or recovery—as simple as saying, “I am still me. I am still the same person who goes to brunch and has a dark sense of humor and sometimes does psychedelic drugs” (or whatever it is that felt out of bounds for a season).

It’s a total reconstitution. Or at least it was for me. My kids are 4 and 7 now and I feel like I am just starting to see myself, my new self, in more liberated, textured ways. And I so crave to be seen this way, too. I so crave for my girls to know that I am a writer (they do) and that I love to dance (they do), that I love them (yes, yes, everyday yes) but also that I love my friends and get fed up with the world and like to have uninterrupted conversations about movies and books.

I want them mostly to feel like I show up—for them, for everyone I love, and also for people I don’t even know because I am a devout believer in the common good—but also that sometimes I can’t show up in the way people need me to. That I have to fuck up and sleep in and walk around the block in a huff of anger. That I am still a work in progress, imperfect and sometimes wrong and often confused.

In some ways, I know, it’s developmentally appropriate for them to just want me to be okay and devoted to them and show up seamlessly. Sometimes I still want that from my mom, 41 years later. But as they’re able, I so revel in being seen holistically. Which requires that I keep showing up as my whole self—to them, to their dad, and mostly, and this is so important, to myself. I can become such a whirlwind of meeting deadlines and needs, pleasing and executing and planning, that I forget my very self. My very selves. I forget what I desire. I forget that I get to crash. I forget that my worth is not completely defined by my ability to care.

Maybe that’s what people call “self-care,” but for me it’s something wider and deeper—a recognition, a delight, an investment in my multitudinous (mother/writer/fuck-up/neighbor/nerd/artist/shut-in/friend/three-point shooter/partner/daughter/sister/) self.

I did walk around the block in a huff the other night after raising my voice at Maya and feeling bad about it. When I got back, Stella looked up from the table where she had turned her chicken nuggets into rocks that her finger puppets were jumping on to in order to cross the river of ketchup and she said, “Feeling better, mama?”

“Yeah, a little better, thanks Stells.”

It is so small, these moments of recognition, but they are so edifying. I’m just one of the bozos in this house, trying to learn how to use my words to get what I want and compromise and play and make stuff. To love and be loved. To forgive and be forgiven.

Being a mother is to be the center of a universe. In some ways, that’s beautiful. Sacred even. It deserves recognition and awe. But the truth is, I mean the scientific truth is: the universe, in fact, has no center. Turns out: “Ever since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the universe has been expanding. But despite its name, the Big Bang wasn’t an explosion that burst outward from a central point of detonation.”

Mothers are not central points of detonation. We are stars, too. Big, bright stars that shed a lot of light on the little planets around us. Sometimes our true light isn’t understood or appreciated for years. Sometimes we barely honor its strangeness ourselves.

I guess all I’m really trying to say is, “Mothers are people, too.” Which doesn’t sound like a great fit for a Hallmark card, but damn if that’s not what a lot of us are actually craving someone (including us) notices this Saturday.