It was so much easier when he was younger. So much easier when I could give of myself with a breast, through my motherhood made liquid for only him. It was so much easier when I could meet his needs for comfort, for inclusion, for belonging, for stimulation by tossing him on my back, and performing the mundanities of life: folding the laundry, loading the dishwasher, walking the dog. It was so much easier when all-my-attention meant cooing into that infant face, bouncing him on a leg, dropping my head just enough to inhale and kiss that so-sweet-smelling barely-there hair, tied as he was to my center, taking in the breath of me and beat of me.
Now, he needs so much less, and so much more, and I am floundering, my center lost. The mundanities that were made easy, inevitable, when he was sling-bound twice a day for naps, are now impossible, insurmountable. Inclusion is an ideal that I cannot enact without hyperventilating, my shoulders creeping up, my hands twitching to take over, take control, do it right. Conversations once held over the noise of his babbling are now shouted down with “Stop talking! Don’t talk to her! Don’t talk to him!”, as our beloved-but-not-benevolent dictator decrees communication betwixt his subjects be undetectable by his objectioning ears. All-my-attention means jumping and running and risking bruises and back injuries, finding myself unable to finish reading aloud the book he’s requested but unallowed to set it down while he tells me the same thing about it he’s told me a thousand times before, in detail overwhelming and uninteresting.
I should put down the phone, set aside the computer, get out of the chair. I should invite him to join me in all the tasks of living. I should shrug and smile and declare oopsies! when the expected occurs and a plate is dropped, a recipe mangled, a cup of flour tossed everywhere. I should hear his interruptions as innocent cries for attention, affection, movement, play. I should laugh at the chaos of life, and make a game of tidying up. I should give until he is filled up, trust that the more here-now I am with him, the less he will hang on my arm, unappeased by the dribbles I offer.
I should because this is the person I want to be, the parenting I planned on, the approach I advocate. I should because I know it is joyful, and I need more joy. I should because the more I flow, the easier it is; because mindfulness is my mission; because serenity isn’t a goal but a way. I should, I should, I should.
Should is word I wish I could ban, from myself, from parents, from everyone. Should is oppression incarnate. Should is the scourge with which we flagellate ourselves, from which we reflexively cringe, I know, I know, I know! Should is a black shawl, heavy as carpet, as dark as deep sea, an ocean of shame and fear and hatred pushing down, squeezing us into dense inflexible resentful distortions of ourselves. Should creates I-won’t, I-can’t, I-shan’t. Should leaves no room to breathe, to expand, to experiment, to fail, to succeed, to leap, and dance, and live. Should leaves only pain, anger, stuck-ness.
I should be a better parent — so I cannot be. I should not yell, not lose my temper, not decide he cannot before he even is allowed to try — so it is all I do. I should be creative, be flexible, be adaptable — so I cannot change.
I should not should on myself. And so here I am.
It’s not that I don’t want to be here-now with him; I do. At least, in abstract I do. As an idea, I do. And when I can, when my eyes meet his and we grin and he laughs and I chase him down and he chases me and we laugh, it is so very worth it. But he wants more. More playing, more running, more chase, more wrestling and then there are bruises, more throwing and then something breaks, more time and then I am late, more me and then I am done. Empty. Gone.
I want more, too. More village, more relatives, more people, more friends for him to play with, more adults for me to talk to. I want more time by myself, to run and swim and build up my endurance so I have more to give to him. I want more time alone with my lover so conversations over his insistence that we shut up aren’t necessary for us to so much as exchange information, much less try to connect. I want more space and safety and social support to toss him outside to play until he’s worn out, has a skinned knee I can kiss better, has a fascinating bug he wants to show me. I want more; how can I give to him from abundance when I acutely feel so much lack?
He is in bed with his father as I write; I do not know whether tonight will be like the last three nights, when he jumps out of bed, slams open the door, and runs out here, eyes squinting, joyfully calling “Mommy!” while my breath catches — is caught, bagged-and-tagged: “Property of the Boychick; if seen loose, capture and return at once.” I do not know whether tonight I will be able to finish my work, turn the lights off on the couch so cluttered only his frame is small enough to find space, on the table whose color I can tell only by the legs, on the floor which shares equal occupancy between the dog, drifts of hair, and the toys my child has picked up, played with, and abandoned since last we were able to clean — for I cannot pick up now, while he sleeps, for fear of waking him, nor then, while he’s awake, to spare us all the stress of his protestations — and climb at last into bed, press my nose to his hair in search of the smell I once so loved, and sleep… until he wakes me, and it is time to do it all — falling short, loving strong, eking out time for myself from the margins of my life — again. And again. And again.
Everything in here is true, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is darker, lighter, more joyful, more despairing, more hopeful, more angry, and far, far more complex. Nor is there a conclusion, because this is life, and as long as I am very lucky, it simply goes on.