Saturday, May 7, 2011

Stories and Clay: Reflections on Motherhood

Being a mother, I write this at a risk of being the more harshly judged. Tomorrow, however, is Mothers' Day and having celebrated Fathers earlier on this blog, it seems right to reflect on the relationship we all take so much for granted, unless it has somehow been snatched from us.

Motherhood, I tell my students, is not for the faint of heart; the parents among my students nod their sage agreement to this. I am awed, for example, at how the existence of an ugly, squirming new born (face it; new borns are beautiful only to their families and remain indifferent to those who love them beyond reason or proportion!) can change the very personality of the nourisher. It is the most illogical of relationships: as a parent, one begins this relationship with full awareness that there shall be no returns on this investment, that there CAN be no returns on an investment this huge.

Logically, motherhood makes no sense; it demands, to a large degree, erasure of the self. We are told that in exchange, we are to give up our firm, youthful bodies, to become willing houses for lives more important than ours, even sometimes be willing to go through really scary, painful, unforgettable physical procedures that will forever change us into unrecognizable beings. Even those of us who do not go through a physical motherhood are made to go through procedures just as exacting and harrowing that often make us question our sanity. This metamorphosis to being a mother is terribly expensive, shall curtail our personal freedoms in a variety of small and large ways, and impose a role that we shall have no respite from, sleeping or awake, as long as we shall live, and sometimes, even beyond that.

I am, then, understandably mystified at this need we have to nourish. It would seem more logical to enhance our own lives, strive to increase our life-spans, live more fully, rather than to choose decades of half-lives, to accept fatigue the likes of which even the sleepless nights and agonies of grad school can hold no candle to.  So it doesn't make sense that motherhood would somehow stand for all we hold sacred!

But we often worship what we feel too strongly to understand. I remember the first time I held my daughter: a feeling so fierce seized me so suddenly, so strongly, it felt like a growl from a deep, old being that wept in fear, joy, fulfillment, and maniac laughter that bounces & echoes through thunder clouds. The nurses and attendants, well-trained and well-informed about the growl, gave me a wide berth until I could breathe properly again. I remember poking my infant in her crib, in the middle of many a night, until she shuddered a breath, so I could believe that I'd still have her upon awakening, if I gave in to sleep for a while. Of course, death, in any form would be more acceptable to me than the thought of losing her in any way, or of her being in helpless, uneased pain. I am a selfish woman that way.

However, when I look at all the mothers around me, they do not seem selfish at all. They patiently tolerate tantrums in malls and backseats of cars, wear out cookie cutters making endless peanut-butter sandwiches more alluring, gladly put their careers on hold for the privilege of greeting their pre-schoolers in the middle of the day for the nap, read one more story in their special Mommy Voice at the end of an exhausting day of juggling their many roles. These mothers sit, awake and still, at their children's bedside in the dark and breathe in the milk-and-soap fragrance of the children's dreams long after the story is done and the children unaware of their presence. They consider themselves fortunate, just for living this moment.

When she was six, my daughter made a baked clay bowl for me. It is a small fruit bowl that dreams of being a goblet. It is not exactly even or balanced, though it needs no support. Though glazed, the bowl's surface is not smooth: it bears thumb prints of a girl who used her hands for someone other than herself. That roughly made bowl holds countless moments and their leftovers in form of shells, pins, especially good erasers, and lately, a card reader for my sixteen year old's newest, proudest possession, the camera her uncle gave her.

To me, that bowl is the image of motherhood. It is a vessel that is too uncommon to be used in the common way vessels are used; it is too common to be put away behind a glass door as a curio or an object to be idolized and never used. Usually, we ignore it even though it occupies a prominent place on our furniture. But we cannot imagine it not being there. It is sturdy enough to hold momentoes of our life; yet we fear it might be fragile.

I look at that bowl now and wonder at its infinite capacity for holding little things that remind us of the stuff we are made of. I am afraid I lack the courage to clean it out and catalogue its contents to make it more manageable.

My sincere homage and salutations go out to all mothers, whatever their shape, provenance, or glaze, and to their infinite capacity for holding the entire Creation within their very fragile, very strudy arms of clay.