Motherhood was not something I wanted since I was a little girl. It was not something I aspired to. It was something that I felt I wanted to experience in terms of the quality of love. I have, like I think everybody else, complicated relationships to my own parents, so I knew it wouldn’t be simple, but I did want the experience. And my husband was absolutely sure.
I had my daughter when I was just over 35, and I thought she might be my only child, but my husband came to me and said that he felt really strongly that someone in our family was missing. It was not that hard to convince me. I have a brother, and sister. I am so close to my brother that it’s unfathomable to imagine living without him.
I found motherhood really traumatic. I still find it traumatic. I think of myself as an artist. I’m a writer. I have a very self absorbed personality, even though I think of myself as generous and friendly and having a lot of friends. The relentlessness of motherhood was exhausting to me. It was also, honestly, tedious and boring, and I felt like nobody told me that would happen. I also was surprised at how unnatural a lot of it felt to me. When my daughter was a baby there were times when I would say to my husband, “I really think you should be the mother,” because he seemed much more natural, comfortable and well-suited to what she needed. Motherhood changed my ideas about work in that I actually was desperate to work more.
I was at a certain place in my career and in my own maturation personally where it had been a long time since I had been a beginner at anything. It took me a long time to adjust to the incompetence of motherhood. There’s mechanics of taking care of somebody, and, frankly, that wasn’t hard for me, but the emotional bonding and the idea that it should be joyful in a natural way… It was hard for me to say to somebody, “I’m not enjoying this,” and not feel self-conscious or embarrassed, or worried that there’s something wrong with me, that I was missing some sort of piece or gene.
I shared those feelings because I’m a sharer and because I was terrified. I have always found that my fear ebbs when people tell me it’s not so weird and that I’m not alone. I don’t know that I had a single friend say to me, “It is a trauma.” I had a lot of, “Oh, yeah. It’s a full-body tackle. It knocks you down.” I don’t know that any of my friends were as traumatized as I was.
Because I’m a superstitious person, I had made a bargain in my mind with the forces of nature that if my first child was healthy, because I developed an obsessive fear that she wouldn’t be and that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of taking care of her if she wasn’t, I had made this sort of bargain that if she were born healthy I would not ask for another one. And I had to confess this to my husband when he asked for another one, and he wisely said, “Well, I didn’t make that bargain. This is our child, and I also don’t think it works that way,” and he’s incredibly persuasive. So I put a lot of faith in people that I thought honestly knew better than I did, and what’s interesting, or ironic, or comic is that I have two physically healthy children. My daughter is really delicate emotionally and my son is mentally ill. So I kind of got what I bargained for.
My son is beautiful, and really charismatic, and funny, and smart. He was born really fat and healthy, and for the first few years of his life he was referred to unironically at daycare as Mr. Agreeable. At about two he started to be difficult in a way that was a little off the scale, but not completely. But by four he was chronically difficult. We were visiting my family in California. My brother, who had at that time two teenage sons, took me aside and he said, “He’s an asshole, but he doesn’t have to be, and he certainly doesn’t want to be. Something’s wrong with him, and your job is to find out what’s wrong with him and help him.” Until that point, there was this tremendous critique of our parenting. My brother basically lifted it right off us. And we came home and began a process of assessment. It was pretty clear, pretty quickly that he has something called sensory processing integration disorder, and there’s therapy for that that isn’t pharmacological. His issues are pretty serious. For years you couldn’t touch him. You couldn’t kiss him. He was really reactive to smells and sounds, and he’s been through three solid years of occupational therapy and that’s really helped. It took a long time to find out that he matches the description of what they call pediatric bipolar, and there’s adult bipolar in both my husband’s family and my family. So I, at this point, accept that diagnosis. He cycles through mania and depression. He has delusions. He has grandiosity. He’s not unlike a grown up person with bipolar, but all those things can happen in an hour and can happen 10 times a day, so that’s really–he’s exhausting.
I want desperately to be able to say to you, “He’s my greatest teacher, and it’s so humbling, and I’ve learned so much,” and I expect to get to the end of my life or his and be able to say that, but right now I can’t. What I can say right now is that he has forced me to better learn patience and have a much more nuanced understanding of progress because he’s someone that can only be compared to himself. He’s not unenjoyable. He’s full of laughter. He’s a very goofy, silly kid in a good way, and he’s smart. Once I accepted the fact that he’s mentally ill, he did become a lot easier to love.
When you have a special needs child, the anti is really front and center all the time. How can we get to it all this week — the 50,000 therapy appointments and still get to our jobs, and that sort of thing.
How has this experience affected my relationship with my husband? It’s certainly taken away most of the whimsy, and not the romance. There’s a level of intimacy that comes with being in it together. Although I don’t want to romanticize it.
How do I cope? I tell the truth. The most liberating thing for me is that I have good friends and family that I can tell the truth to, and not feel judged.
I do a lot of things that other people do. I try to walk in the woods, and I meditate. I try, really, self-consciously to enjoy the things about my kids that are enjoyable. My husband and I are pretty good at reminding each other that this is nice, this is good. We have a good life. Look, how well he’s doing. She’s so pretty. Whatever it is. Look at her report card.
But for me the lifesaving thing is that I have friends and I can call them up and say my kid is motherfucking crazy. He’s crazy. My kid is acquainted with the police department, because at the height of his illness before he was properly medicated, he would have delusions and he would run away. He wasn’t being petulant or difficult. He thought he was being pursued. I mean, he really did!
I’ve also been questioned by the police because he was having a tantrum of such epic proportions physically, and I was trying to restrain him therapeutically and it was scary to people.
It’s very helpful to have friends who say to you, “Yeah, I know that’s some serious, serious shit.” I also swear. It’s my favorite vice. I swear in public which runs a little counter to my otherwise dignified position and sweet visage, and it feels great.
How would I comfort another mother who is beginning to experience similar challenges? I would say to her what I actually say to comfort the people who spend their time with Milo, his teachers, his therapist. I would say that when Milo, my son, is making other people’s lives hard, when he has left the campus of his school, run into the woods and climbed a tree so that they have to call the police and surround him, and get my husband or myself to come talk him down, when he has brought the action of the entire world to a screeching halt, he is still the person in the most amount of pain.
It’s really hard, really hard especially for adults to believe that. That’s what I tell myself. That’s what I would tell others. At the end of every hour and every day this is about his pain and relieving it. And the more relief he feels, the more that there is an echo of concentric circles of relief. It’s very hard to remember, so hard.
I remember when he had that fit that caused me to be questioned by the police. It was on the metro, in Washington DC, and I was with my mother. He was having this fit and my mom said, “What do we do?” And I said, We’re going to get off at the next stop, whatever it is, which we did, and he continued the fit there, which is when the police came to question me. And they left, and my son calmed down. It took a solid hour and a half before we could get back on the metro. And then my son was fine. It almost felt to me like he was having some sort of seizure, because his own memory seems so clean afterwards, while I felt so traumatized.
And my mother said to me, “What do think happens to kids like him who don’t have parents with your resources, your emotional resources, your financial resources? I said, “They get beaten. I’m sure they get beaten because it’s taking a lot of my resources not to beat him.
Am I different because I’m a mother? There’s no way you can’t be. I don’t know that I’m a better person. I could not imagine losing my children and surviving, but I can easily imagine never having had them.
Once you have children, what shifts is what you have to lose. That is different about me. I can’t say what I think a lot of other mothers say, that it’s made me deeper, or better, or kinder, or more loving, or more self-sacrificing or anything like that. I think it’s made me more aware of what I have to lose.
As much as it’s a hard thing to admit, I am at best ambivalent about motherhood. On my worst days, I regret motherhood. On my best days I’m ambivalent.
I take good care of my children and I love them to the best of my capacity. I know I’m not a great mother. I work towards being a good enough mother. But I think a lot about what my life would be like if I hadn’t had children, and I know it’s not the best thing I ever did. It is the only thing I ever did that I can’t undo.
And I really, really wish women understood that. I wish our culture understood how hard it is to be a good mother with wanted children, so how important it is that every child be wanted. And that is something that has come to my attention — the degree to which bad parenting hurts all of us.