Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Required Reading

Last Friday, after my son Gabe had been back at school for all of 10 days, I picked him up & his nose was running. When we got home I went to bed for 3 days. I wasn't being over dramatic, but did feel hopelessly like I was living a sick version of the movie Groundhog Day. The poor kid went through this same damn thing LAST September, then in December, then March, culminating in a two week hospitalization in June; his head blown up like a balloon with a sinus infection we feared had gone in to his brain.
I used to be a Psychology Professor in a previous life & the article below was required reading. Andrea Yates was made infamous by drowning her kids during her progressively worsening postpartum PSYCHOSIS, (not postpartum depression; a HUGE difference). She had five children under the age of seven, because her & her husband believed they were,"to have as many children as God wanted us to have." She's now sitting in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of her life, while her husband divorced her & went on to marry & have more children. :  / 

Playing God On No Sleep 

By Anna Quindlan

So a woman walks into a pediatrician's office. She's tired, she's hot & she's been up all night throwing sheets into the washer because the smaller of her two boys has projectile vomiting so severe it looked like a special effect from "The Exorcist." Oh, & she's nauseated too, because since she already has two kids under the age of 5 it made perfect sense to have another, & she's four months pregnant. In the doctor's waiting room, which sounds like a cross between an orchestra tuning loudly & a 747 taking off, there is a cross-stitched sampler on the wall. It says GOD COULD NOT BE EVERYWHERE SO HE MADE MOTHERS.

This is not a joke & that is not the punch line. Or maybe it is. The woman was me, the sampler real & the sentiments it evoked were unforgettable: incredulity, disgust & that out-of-body feeling that is the corollary of sleep deprivation & adrenaline rush, with a soupcon of shoulder barf thrown in. I kept reliving this moment & others like it, as I read with horrified fascination the story of Andrea Yates, a onetime nurse suffering from postpartum depression who apparently spent a recent morning drowning her five children in the bathtub. There is a part of my mind that imagines the baby, her starfish hands pink beneath the water, or the biggest boy fighting back, all wiry arms & legs & then veers sharply away, aghast, appalled.

But there's another part of my mind, the part that remembers the end of a day in which: the milk spilled phone rang one cried another hit a fever rose the medicine gone the car sputtered another cried the cable out "Sesame Street" gone all cried out stomach upset full diaper no more diapers Mommy I want water Mommy my throat hurts Mommy I don't feel good. Every mother I've asked about the Yates case has the same reaction. She's appalled; she's aghast, & then she gets this look. The look says that at some forbidden level she understands. The looks says that there are two very different kinds of horror here. There is the unimaginable idea of the killings, & then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of seven.

The insidious cult of motherhood is summed up by the psychic weight of the sampler on that doctor's wall. We are meant to be all things to small people, surrounded by bromides & soppy verse & smiling strangers who talk about how lucky we are. We are lucky. My children have been the making of me as a human being, which does not mean they have not sometimes been an overwhelming & mind-boggling responsibility. That last is the love that dare not speak its name, the love that is fraught with fear & fatigue & inevitable resentment. But between the women who cannot have children & sometimes stare at our double strollers grief-stricken & the grandmothers who make raising eight or ten sound like a snap & insist we micromanage & over-analyze, there is no leave to talk about the dark side of being a surrogate deity, omniscient & out of milk all at the same time.

The weight was not always so heavy. Once the responsibility was spread around extended families, even entire towns. The sociologist Jessie Bernard had this to say: "The way we institutionalize motherhood in our society--assigning sole responsibility for child care to the mother, cutting her off from the easy help of others in an isolated household, requiring round-the clock tender, loving care & making such care her exclusive activity--is not only new & unique, but not even a good way for either women or--if we accept as a criterion the amount of maternal warmth shown--for children. It may, in fact, be the worst."

It has gotten no better since those words were uttered 25 years ago. Worse, perhaps, with all the competing messages about what women should do & be & feel at this particular moment in time. Women not working outside their homes feel compelled to make their job inside it seem both weighty & joyful; women who work outside their homes for pay feel no freedom to be ambivalent because of the sub rosa sense that they are cutting parenting corners. All of us are caught up in a conspiracy in which we are both the conspirators & the victims of the plot. In the face of all this "M" is for the million things she gave me" mythology, it becomes difficult to admit that occasionally you lock yourself in the bathroom just to be alone.

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