Tag Archives: school

More on mother guilt

In a previous post on the MIRCI conference, I wrote:

Guilt sucks. At least half of the talks mentioned the devastating effects of mother guilt — not only is it a tool of control of the kyriarchy (or “the dominant cultural discourse”) by keeping the focus on “what’s wrong with me” not “the prescription of the ‘good mother’ is wrong”, it makes us worse parents. We overcompensate out of guilt, we lose our autonomy and authenticity because of guilt, and we snap from the stress of feeling guilty. Drop the guilt.

And so, of course, as soon as I got back home, the universe decided to test me on the topic. I’m not going to go into the details right now, not least because everything is still very much in flux, but the Boychick has been having difficulties in preschool that came to a peak on his first session back after my return. And oh, did the guilt come on in force.

I had left him.

I let his sleep disregulate.

I exposed him to “adult language”.

I failed to regulate my moods around him.

I broke my child, and he would never “succeed” at school, and it would be all my fault, forever and ever and ever amen.

What good did this guilt do me? Did it help me identify areas to change? Did it grant me the courage to make the changes I needed? Did it help me accept the situation as it was so I was free to move on?

No. It made me want to grab my child and climb in a dark hole where no one could get at us, and sob in his sweet soft curls, his long limbs curled in my lap, my eyes squeezed closed and streaming salty tears. It froze me. And I had to let it go before I could move, before I could talk, before I could plan for any action but that, that impossible urge to run and flee and hide and burrow and board off the world.

Even now it threatens to overwhelm — your selfishness is responsible for all his problems, it whispers, seeking to slip in wherever it can, my culture’s beliefs borrowing my brain’s voice to torment and tie me down — and must be ignored, set aside, even — radical notion! — forgiven if I’m to help my walking heart as he deserves.

It’s this strange game we play: we are blamed, so we blame ourselves, carry this guilt, wield it before us — “See, I’m doing my job, I know it’s my fault, don’t blame me more, I’m not a Bad Mom, I know I’ve done bad, but I’ll try harder, do better, beat myself for it, don’t hurt me more!” — so as to stop it being wielded against us. It doesn’t work, of course, but in many ways it is worse when we dare to declare “No, I won’t take this on, I did not mold my child, he is who he is and I’ll help him as I can but I am not his creator or his owner or his personal omnipotent god and there is only so much I can do.” Then, we are told, we don’t care, our blasé ‘tude proof of our culpability, our unfulfilled responsibility, our negligence and negative influence. And to try that as a mother with a mood disorder? Then, the voice smirks, the culture accuses, I must be delusional. Obviously I have damaged him. Obviously I am bad, wrong, unworthy, unable to parent without causing pain.

And maybe some small part of that is true. Maybe some of how he is is because of how I am. Maybe his life is harder because mine isn’t easy. But guilt? Doesn’t ease either of our burdens, doesn’t help us move, doesn’t help us grow. Guilt would have us hide away, deny us the sun and air and freedom we need, both of us, to thrive in our own unique ways.

I have my difficulties. So, as much as it breaks my heart to know but as has always been inevitable, does my child. And we are both beautiful and perfectly imperfect exactly as we are.

Guilt? Would only get in our way. And we’ve got too much to do to let it.

On the moral obligation to be healthy

I started this post in May 2010, shortly after the event I termed Backpocalypse 2010 (in an ill-disguised attempt to use humor to distance myself from the pain and terror I felt), in which I injured my back to the point of needing to take a hiatus from my course of study at massage school. But while the personal resonance mentioned below has lessened some, the questions and issues involved are still here, and still concern me — and ought, I would argue, concern you.

Should we strive to be healthy? Most people would say yes.

Do we have an obligation — to ourselves, our families, our community (or country, or world for that matter) — to maximize our health; by which we are supposed to understand to mean our ability to function (to be “productive”, preferably in an explicitly capitalist way), and the longevity thereof? Maybe you wouldn’t say yes to this, but it’s the same question as above, just explicated a little.

I say no. Why?

As it stands, the moral obligation to be “healthy” according to the above definition is what:

  • gives fatphobes the “right” to comment on my appearance, my diet, my activity level, my life (because, of course, everyone knows that fat is unhealthy).
  • creates pressure on a pregnant person to use every test available to determine whether her pregnancy is “healthy enough” to continue, whether or not she herself wishes to.
  • supports telling some people that they are not good enough to have children in the first place — because how dare they risk passing their disability, their atypicality, their ill health, their moral failing on to another generation?
  • allows us to shame women for not breastfeeding, rather than focusing on the ways we can help her meet her own breastfeeding goals.
  • defends forced-medication rulings for those whose thoughts and emotions don’t fit society’s expectations.
  • allows us to tsk-tsk “those people” for not eating “right”, for making “bad food choices”, ignoring the multitude of reasons why people (especially those without class privilege) might eat “suboptimal” food.

None of that is OK.

The idea of moral obligation to heath has a particular resonance right now, when I feel the sting of inability, when I question my worth as I possibly fail, again, at a goal I have set myself.

Long ago I gave up on trying to fit into office work. Then I gave up (or set aside) the idea of being an academic student in a traditional college (which hurt far more than giving up temping, as you can imagine). Now I’m facing the potential loss of practicing massage therapy1, while simultaneously finding myself unable to eke out enough time to write, either. And I wonder: what is the point of me? Am I ever going to be able to make a living? If not, what good am I?

And the assumption behind those fears is, of course, highly problematic. It is the idea that we are only valuable for what we earn or produce — a capitalistic definition of “value”.

Which is not to say I “shouldn’t” want health or productivity for itself — nor that I should. Let’s just toss out all “shoulds”. The simple fact is that I DO want to do these things for themselves (I chose massage because I love it), and I DO want to be “productive” because I, like almost everyone else on the planet, want to be part of something (my community, my movement, my tribe, my family). The problem isn’t the idea of health2 or productivity; the problem is when we make those things moral obligations, rather than recognizing that they have inherent value, and that, lacking outside pressure, people will still want them for themselves.

When we make health an obligation, we create a hierarchy of people, based often on things outside of their own control. We say that some people are better than others, because of chance or choice or circumstance. We say that if you’re not “healthy” (by whatever criteria the judger has decided to focus on, often related barely or not at all to my or your or science’s definition of “health”), you aren’t working hard enough, you don’t know enough, you aren’t buying the right things. We allow people the grace of bad luck old chap if they can prove that it’s not their fault (and please, dear reader, take a moment to contemplate the impossibility of proving a negative, and the burden of having to do it over, and over, and over again), but still, under that, is the sometimes unspoken yet always detectable question are you really doing everything you possibly could to get better?

The burden this places on people — is placing on me — makes a difficult situation so very much worse (or, for some, turns what is simply and joyfully their life into a trial — not the state of their health but the social conversation around it is what drags them down). It’s not enough that we may not have the health we want, that our bodies may not do what we wish of them, that we may be limited in our choices: the moral obligation to health means we are failing those around us. It’s not enough that we may struggle, that I struggle: the moral obligation to health means we struggle with our society’s disapproval as well.

So no, I do not believe there is a moral obligation to health in some imaginary “objective” sense, nor that we as a society should impose one. Rather, I would say, society has the moral obligation to assist each person to be as healthy as ze wants to be (including, as my culture so spectacularly fails at right now, removing barriers to health and health care), and to respect the intrinsic motivation and decision making of its members.

Health — in the fullest sense of an individual’s optimal wellness, whatever that means to them — is not something we need to bribe or shame or obligate each other into pursuing. And to try is not only futile but counterproductive and often, as I feel so acutely now, cruel.

In the nearly-year since I started writing this, I have spent hundreds of hours in many practitioners’ offices working to regain my ability to move and to perform massage safely and without pain; have graduated massage school; and just this week passed the written portion of my licensing exam. The imposition of a “should”, an obligation, toward health added a layer of anxiety to my initial period of injury that this post reflects — but it was out of my own desire, not out of obligation, that I worked so hard toward recovery and that I continue to work on my physical wellness. It was only after coming to some sort of peace with the idea that I might not be able to perform massage — might not be productive in the way I’d so long planned, might once again fail, or defy, the expectations and pressures society places on me — that I was able to be centered enough to move forward, and do it in a way that was healthy for all of me, body and mind.

  1. Not a certain thing, but my back is not yet healed enough to perform regular, full-length massage, and in my darker moments I despair that it ever will.
  2. Though perhaps part of the problem is how we define health.

Mostly fluffy post of go-me-ness

I have sitting next to me a certificate of completion and congratulation from massage school (the proper my-name-on-it diploma-thing will come after transcripts are finalized) and a copy of Bitch Magazine Spring 2011, in which I am quoted1. I’ve been petting each alternately, not entirely sure which thrills me more –

One of my physical therapists2 asked me yesterday whether, if my massage practice took off tomorrow and I was as booked as I wanted to be, I would still write. Though I understood his point — for some people desk work is what they do until their body work practice can sustain them — to me it was like asking “If you had all the water you could drink, would you still want to breathe?”

but we’ll focus on the first here.

This is the first course of study (really, the first anything) I’ve completed since graduating high school — which was only just, thanks to migraines and undiagnosed mood instability. This accomplishment was not barely, but solidly, definitely, unquestionably. Though there were many times I wondered whether I’d make it — particularly in the months after Backpocalypse 2010 — and I took a couple breaks as needed, I never really faltered as I have so many times before. I never failed a course for lack of completion of coursework. I never let an absence prevent my return. I never let my at-times-overwhelming fear of failure, or my equally hindering fear of success, stop me from simply taking the next step.

And that? Feels really damn good.

  1. More on this in another post, as I have Words to Say, but for now let’s revel in the simple joy of it.
  2. Yes, I have more than one.

The arts of wordless mindfulness and mindful words

Between pregnancy canceling one set of plans and a miscalculation of the number of elective credits remaining needed to graduate, I signed up at the last minute to take an especially woo class1 this past weekend, one I had never intended to take at all.

Part of what we do in massage (both giving and receiving), and one of the reasons it is so beneficial, is to have a time when the mind is not the focus of the self. It is the body that is the focus — my hands and arms and how I stand and move and dance to touch the body before me when I give, my skin and muscles and fat and blood and flesh and fascia and the wholeness of me, my pain and pleasure and the simple feeling-ness of being touched with love when I am receiving. My mind still babbles — of course it does — but I breathe, and let it go, and return to my body and the work I am doing2.

Reiki is that aspect of massage distilled. Rather than the body being the focus as in massage (or the mind as it is in most of our lives), now it is, whatever this means to you, spirit3. Most of the 18 hours of class was spent in the stillness of motionlessness as well as the silence of voicelessness — I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience, but mine was hardly silent otherwise. The brain, so skilled at formulating thoughts, continues its work regardless of our intent or desire, and so sitting in “silence” is anything but. Grocery lists, to-do items, old memories, projected worries — these I can let go of. These I am happy to send on their merry way, to let slip down the stream as unneeded creations of a mind only doing it job, not knowing when its production is unnecessary. But what comes to me in that stillness and silence that I wish to cling to, wish to grab hold of and jump up and run for pen and paper and the scritching sound of my hand moving one against the other, is the words. Post ideas fully formed, phrases finally perfectly turned, eloquence and persuasiveness and emotions given voice. How do I let go of these, when I know in a few hours — at most, a few days — I will be sitting here yet again begging for them to come?

There’s a writerly saying that the first 500, 750, 1000 words of the day are crap, but you have to write them, write through them and past them, in order to get to the good stuff. Some nights I feel like these are my 1000 words, and if I could just stay up longer, could sleep in tomorrow, could avoid insanity and instability on an irregular sleep schedule; if I could do this during work hours, could get out the first 1000 words when my part of the planet is facing the sun, could sit and write revolution instead of agitate in spurts of 140 characters or fewer in the few minutes’ attention that is all my child will allow to deviate from him: then I could get to those gems that pester at my brain, that beg to be heard and recorded after the 1000 are tossed up on the blog with mutters of “good enough”, which are not becalmed by the couple times a week I am able to sit here, laptop earning its name, but are instead bestirred by them — only to fade or flee when I, exhausted, say no, stop now, I have to sleep, I have no time for you: come back next week, next month, next life.

They never do.

So when they come in the silence and the stillness, in the midst of supposedly-good-for-me meditation — I am supposed to let them go? (The pain of doing so was one of the many reasons I found myself in tears more than once this weekend.) Perhaps a Buddha or a Hallmark card would say they are butterflies and are crushed with the clinging, or that if they love me then they will return, but I, with a few stolen hours a day a few fought-for times a week and but a few months until even that, perhaps, is impossible, cannot convince myself I have the time for such patience, for such woo and trust and surrender.

Likely the prudent path4 would be to take the time to meditate before writing — instead of poking around Twitter, say. And perhaps, one day, I will do that: after all, tonight I showered before sitting down5, so here I am at only 10pm with my nearly-1000 words. Perhaps one day I’ll be that disciplined and evolved and mature. Perhaps one day I won’t be so surrounded by kids and chaos and an overflow of needs unmet that I’ll have the time and the space and the ability to sit and be before I sit and attempt to do this work.

Or perhaps one day I’ll realize that I cannot afford to waste my time struggling to create through all that stuff when I could, instead, take a few minutes first to let it go, set it aside so the words and I don’t have to fight to find each other.

Perhaps one day.

——————————

  1. Reiki, which was simultaneously less and more woo than I’d expected. Keep your eye-rolling to yourself, please.
  2. For receiving massage is its own sort of work — not work as in labor, but as in the work of being alive and present, the beautiful work of the breath and of being.
  3. A perhaps ridiculously-simplified statement of my beliefs is that mind and spirit are not separate from but arise from — are functions of — the body. I am, still, a theist, but an independent “soul” is unnecessary to my experience of the spiritual or the divine.
  4. 10 year old philosophy of ethics paper on Aristotle for the win. Thanks, Professor Marya.
  5. While my kid screamed he didn’t want to go to bed and he did want to stay up and shower with me, and while my mind flooded with variations on “please come, words, please, for me, please come, please” so loudly and rapidly nothing else — except my child’s yells — could squeeze its way in. So it wasn’t quite the peaceful and productive experience I might have hoped for.

What’s been going on

My last quarter in massage school started.

The aftermath of the shootings in Tucson depressed me — not the shootings themselves, no, I was given no time to mourn those lives, but the near-immediate rhetoric equating, and explaining, violence with mental illness.

I’ve been gestating, and thus sleeping rather a lot.

And I’ve been spotting, and sometimes more than spotting.

…so I haven’t, so much, been writing.

Private