The lessons of small things

I see you. I’m going in to write.

I stop at the toilet. I realize how much nicer the bathroom would look with all mustard-colored towels. As a child, I told myself I would never be the kind of woman who would care about the color of the bathroom towels. But suddenly, home is Home, and it is an appendage of me and I need it to be satisfying. I desire to satisfy it. The Home. I am indebted.

What is a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, when the option is available? Is she anything? Is she human?

I spent last week with small children and was terrified, horrified, as I prepared myself for the week.  I can’t do it. But then, it was fine. In the midst of the children, I was reminded how goofy I was as a child. How goofy I used to feel around children. I’ve become so tight and anxious. Something about over-exposure to helicopter parents. Something about uncovering my own damage and realizing my potential to damage others. Because this was my feeling, has been my feeling: If I cannot be a mother, I will not be disappointed. If I choose not to be a mother, I will not be disappointed. If I choose to be a mother, I will not be disappointed. I will marry this ambivalence. I will change my name to it. I could not protect myself all those years from all those words, but I can save myself now.

I spent the week with two children, whose joy gave me joy. Whose wanderings and silences and urges wowed me. Impressed me. Schooled me. One child, we’ll call her Z, climbed the doorways like a little squirrel. Like a creature with legs and hands meant for climbing. Her abba stood close, encouraging her, asking her if she could climb both, if she could climb all. Never had a parent encouraged me to be fearless, to take a risk, to put my grubby, tiny hands and feet on the white walls for chrissake.

Z would be asked to do something and she would say, “no.” And that would be that. No argument, no screaming or threats or catastrophic change in the atmosphere. I stood dumbfounded. Z would be told it was time for something and she would say, “okay.” No wailing or bargaining or compromising or devastation. I furrowed my brow in disbelief. What have I been taught? What have I witnessed?

“These are the kind of things a mother might teach a daughter. How to get through the day. How to feel a little better when she is feeling a little worse….All my mother had done was try to love me while not loving herself. All she had done was make me feel about myself as she did about herself. She had been pummeled by life, by loss and by men, neglect and upheaval. She taught me what that felt like and it felt like shit. But in this realization there was great relief. My mother had not hated me. She had not thought me fat or misshapen or disgusting. These were feelings she carried about herself.”

So I’ve had to unlearn all the things I was and wasn’t taught. All the things I absorbed, me and my learning sponge of a brain. I can forget. And I cried, cried, cried in the living room while the children played outside, half-supervised and barefoot in the grass. Realizing all the things I didn’t learn but all the things I have learned and all the things I am learning and all the things I will learn:

1. Cultivate a persona of unreliability.

A handful of years ago, I had a revelation. This was back in the time when I worked very hard to answer all the emails in my email inbox. When I lived in fear of the disappointment of other people. When quelling the impatience of strangers was of higher priority than my own artmaking or sanity. Maybe you live in such a time of your own right now…

I spent a long time trying to maintain relationships with people who wanted more than I was capable of giving. The truth is, I do need to cancel plans regularly. I need to disappear for a few days or even months to attend to my writing. Friends or lovers who resent this, who interpret it as a personal rejection, are often angry with me. And feeling at a deficit makes me want to work harder to make it up to them.

Patriarchy (and institutional bigotry) conditions us to operate as if we are constantly working at a deficit. In some ways, this is true. You have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. I have spent most of my life trying to be perfect. The best student. The best dishwasher. The best waitress. The best babysitter. The best dominatrix. The best heroin addict. The best professor. I wanted to be good, as if by being good I might prove that I deserved more…

I don’t believe in my deficit any more. I will stop seeking out the edges of that pit. I will stop falling into it whenever I am asked a simple question. Whenever the thing doesn’t go my way.

I am loved now. I have a Home now. I don’t have to feel needed. I don’t have to feel tied. There is no strain to feel anymore. Not a leash, not an ugly to answer. Nothing to run from.

I had never expected that my psychiatrist telling me she loved me would be one of my happier moments. It sat in place of something that had been missing. A sensible love. A love that was not the other side of hate. A love that did not need me.

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