Devotion and Distraction
Orli Van Mourik
Almost exactly eleven weeks ago my daughter, Margot, was born howling. The midwife placed her slippery pink body on my chest, still shimmering, and she immediately hoisted her head up to look at me: Why, her perfect ‘o’ of a mouth seemed to ask. The skepticism radiated from her. I didn’t take it personally, just as I didn’t take credit when her elder sister came out laughing. The thing about parenthood is that you understand pretty quickly that each child arrives fully equipped. You might be able to tune up the basic machinery using Buddhism or Analysis or, hell, even Scientology—and there’s always a danger of breaking it—but there’s no turning a Jaguar into a Monster Truck.
At this larval stage of infancy, Margot seems (not unlike her mother) to be a slightly temperamental machine; she registers every change in temperature and balks when handled too roughly. Like a high performance vehicle that demands premium fuel, she refuses to accept the bottle in lieu of the boob and will not be convinced of their interchangeability. She is not so much fragile as she is keenly sensitive to her conditions. Her sister, Scarlet, showed up wearing her party shoes, attuned from the start to life’s joys; with her, I figured out early that my main task was to get out of the way. Margot, by contrast, seems still to be casting one eye back toward the blissful nothing that came before. As her mother, I know that l’ll need to teach her to embrace life’s chaos of sensation. I take this job seriously and want to do it well. I fear that if I fail, she will falter, grow alarmed, turn away from life. I understand this to be a real hazard because I myself am someone prone to these things.
I know that the best I can do for Margot is to beam an uninterrupted stream of light down on her, like the sun in the sky. I also know that this is impossible. Therein lies the great tragedy of parenthood.
We all want to be the sun for our children, I think, at least in our better moments. But we are not celestial bodies; we are people and people are, by nature, inconstant. On my very best parenting days, I’m maybe a Maglite. The beam I emit falters; it goes dim; it veers wildly in the opposite direction for hours on end. This is true of a lot of parents, I think, but I wonder if it’s truer of writing parents, whose brains contain legions. I’m writing this on a dark, soupy winter afternoon, watching my laptop’s clock tick down as my eldest takes an ill-advised nap, the baby slung across a nursing pillow on my lap. The parent in me knows it would be wise to wheedle Scarlet awake with kisses and cuddles so that bedtime goes easily tonight; it scolds me for placating Margot with an absent-minded mouth full of boob. But the writer in me is hungry for more words. These stolen moments feel like wartime contraband, too delicious not to hoard.
Is there guilt? Yes, of course. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an equal amount of pleasure. I spend most of my waking and sleeping hours these days, ministering to the needs of tiny people. This is work I willingly chose to undertake—work that I’m well aware most people don’t have the luxury to choose. And I feel lucky to do it. I also feel, many days, engulfed, less like a woman than like a walking set of hands, always at the ready to wipe a nose or a butt, unload a carful of groceries, cook a meal, button a shirt, place a cool hand on a hot cheek. Never before having children did I truly understand the concept of Mindfulness—how the simple repetition of tasks can dismantle the ego’s armature revealing the quiet mystery beneath. This loss of ego can be liberating, but, inevitably, at some point my western mind recoils from it. Writing, more than anything else, is what restores me to myself. Without it, I feel sometimes like I might dissipate entirely.
For a mind like mine, writing is self-preservation, a necessity. But, of course, in a culture that still views self-sacrifice as the ultimate form of mothering, I frequently feel the need to justify it anyway, to myself and everyone else. My ability to do this is further complicated by the fact that I live in America, a country that hopelessly conflates meaning with money, and I currently net less from writing than I’d earn working at Walmart. It’s one thing to ask your children to sacrifice your attention for the sake of your bottom-line, it’s another to prioritize your own fulfillment over their desire for handmade Halloween costumes, macaroni casseroles and weekend camping trips. Mostly I am able to make peace with this: my children are loved and well tended; they will not wither from a lack of Pinterest projects. The thing I find hard to justify is my wandering attention. When your head holds competing worlds it’s sometimes too easy to let the tide of boredom sweep you away during a detailed recounting of the latest episode of Wild Kratts. When Scarlet sternly informs me that I’m not listening, I feel the jarring atmospheric shift of re-entry and a momentary stab of guilt. It’s not always ideal for my girls when mommy disappears into the recesses of her own brain. But then again, perhaps it’s important for them to see me shine my light inward on occasion. I don’t want to teach them how to disappear. The world will give them plenty of lessons in that regard.
I can’t be the sun, but neither should I be some anemic strain of light escaping under the door. Children end up emotional orphans in just this way, victims of distracted parents who excuse themselves too eagerly from the day-to-day drudgery. To guard against this, I try to keep my writing life and parenting life as separate as possible. I am an emotional bigamist. When I am with my family, I work hard to truly be with them. When I’m writing, I allow myself to forget them. On days when I’d rather be at the keyboard than ferrying Scarlet around from school to class, I remind myself that I have a lifetime for writing, but only a handful of years to play guiding light to these two little people. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes resent their pull on me anyway. I may one day be called to account for this; I’m already preparing for the moment. But I’m also aware that I can’t rid myself of all my shortcomings. Much of this machinery came built in, just as theirs did. My daughters need me to be present, but I can only be as alive to their humanity as I am to my own. If they one day question my choices—well, they’ll always have the work to look to for answers.