Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dear Adrienne Rich...

My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. And I am weak sometimes from held in rage.  Adrienne Rich journal entry, 1960

Dear Adrienne Rich,

I'm a big fan. Of your poetry especially.  A really big fan. (Theoretically speaking, you and I haven't always gotten along, though sometimes we've been on the same page.  I really, really loved What is Found There: A Notebook on Poetry and Politics).

I've been doing research informally about motherhood and feminism and queerness since I had  my first baby six and a half years ago. Thus far, I have avoided reading your book Of Woman Born. Even though I knew I really *should* read it. Even though it is widely recognized as one of the most seminal mothering texts in existence. Or maybe because of that. I can't really tell you why I avoided it for so long, except to say that I thought about doing it, often, and that there was something in me that urged me not to. But I've started some PhD work on mothering and difference, and I knew I couldn't avoid reading your work any longer.

It arrived in the mail yesterday morning. So, I bit the bullet, drew myself a hot bath, and cracked the spine. I had to put it down after the first chapter.  Like, really, really had to. It was, quite frankly, too intense - an opening of the raw wound of some of the particularly dark places that motherhood has taken me. These places are still so riddled with feelings of grief and shame and failure, and I am still so in the midst of them. They are also dark places that I felt sure were specific to my own considerable inadequacies: my selfishness, my crazy, my inability to ever be *enough*. My steadfast belief that I was not, as I had thought, cut out to be a 'good mother.'  There are still many parts of me that believe this to be true. The word motherhood for me conjures such intense feelings of rupture and inadequacy.

I feel na├»ve.  Maybe even a little bit stupid, to have believed that I could have been the only person to feel like I have felt, like you have felt, like I feel still. But I am surrounded and steeped by messages that tell me what selflessness is required of this job. Messages that say this is just what mothers *do*. Messages from people who spout only sunshine and roses and delight at their children, in the present and in hindsight, which only confirm for me my own constant failures to measure up. I must be whiny. I must just not be strong enough. I must be exaggerating these difficulties. And yet the intensity with which I feel anger and love and failure (I totally don't get an A+ in mothering, friends) and grief and loss and captivity and wonder and awe cannot be ignored. The nights I stay up in a cold sweat of fear that I do not have what it takes to walk them through this world whole - positively and brightly, with sunshine and roses - cannot be ignored.

I feel awestruck by the realization that you, a woman who gave birth to her first child a full fifty years before I did mine could articulate such close experiences to my own. When I read about the degradation of your mental health and its impact on your marriage, saying: "I experienced my depressions, bursts of anger, sense of entrapment, as burdens my husband was forced to bear because he loved me, I felt grateful to be loved in spite of bringing him those burdens" (27), you could have been speaking through my mouth, with my words. Your husband, like my wife, was supportive and loving and caring and helpful. But there are some things that can only be understood as the primary caregiver, as a being who has lost their ability to move and think freely, their body space - as a person who has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the world outside of their home. Your bouts of depression and anger, and mine, make a world of sense. It is, perhaps though, a world of sense one cannot understand without dwelling in.  Sense in the senseless.  I feel incredibly saddened that in those fifty years so much and yet so, so remarkably little has changed.

I feel relieved that I am not the only one. And again, strange that I, a staunch feminist with a whole schwack of political awareness about many things, fell prey to the notion that I must be an incredibly horrible person to feel the way I do. One of the most piercing moments occurred when reading this passage you wrote about sleep interruptions:
I remember being uprooted from already meager sleep to answer childish nightmare, pull up a blanket, warm a consoling bottle, lead a half-asleep child to the toilet. I remember going back to bed starkly awake, brittle with anger, knowing that my broken sleep would make the next day a hell, that there would be more nightmares, more need for consolation, because out of my weariness I would rage at those children for no reason they could understand. I remember thinking that I would never dream again (the unconscious of the young mother - where does it entrust its messages, when dreamsleep is denied her for years?) 31/32 (emphasis mine)
Oh.  Oh. And ohhhh. I have only now begun to dream again, as my son rounds the middle of six years of age, and only sporadically. (Sporadic is still how I sleep). I remember telling someone that I just didn't dream, matter of factly, without much thought as to why this might be the case, or what I was missing. Tons of bricks, this passage. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and is hitting me still.

I want to thank you (although those two words are surely inadequate) for being so astoundingly brave. Voicing what you did, fifty years ago, when I am still so scared to voice such words now ... you were incredible.  I love that you had the support of your three sons writing this book. Someday, I will talk with my babes about the intensity of love and loss mothering has brought me. I hope, like your sons, they will understand that my difficulties with this journey in no way diminish my love for them, my joy in watching them grow, my desire to help them do so in ways that nurture and sustain them.

With much love and admiration,


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