Chapter 1: Other Mothers
Overwhelmed and Uncertain—There's No Other Kind
the moment of giving birth to a child, is the mother separate from the
child? You should study not only that you become a mother when your
child is born, but also that you become a child.
—Dogen Zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra
book took time. It took the first two years of my daughter’s life to
arrive at the inspiration and motivation. It took another three years
to write, in scattered, stolen hours of solitude. It took countless
episodes of confusion, madness, and exasperation to realize what I knew
and what I would never know.
Just a few months after my
daughter’s birth, I saw another new mother on the corner at the end of
my block. We were both in midstroll, at midmorning, with our bundled
babies. We recognized in each other’s hollowed eyes and stringy hair,
the secret sign of kindreds. I haven’t slept in a month or bathed in a
week. We walked together that day and many days after. Our daughters
grew older and able and played together. We shared our never-ending
doubts, our discoveries, our complaints, and our whispered heartaches.
Underlying our friendship was the sense, the certain fear, that all
around us were better mothers who were thin and groomed, confident and
competent. These mothers had resolved all the questions about feeding
and sleeping, poop and potty training, preschool and playmates,
teething and talking, paper or plastic, that kept us forever unsteady.
They had happy, textbook, gifted babies. These were mothers with a
method. They were doing all the right things. They were on all the
right waiting lists. They could shower, style their hair, and dress in
their cute prepregnancy clothes every day before breakfast. They shaved
their legs, and they had sex with their husbands. More than that, they wanted to have sex with their husbands.
had birthed not just a child but a fully formed ideology of parenthood.
It made things look easy, and it made things right.
imagined legions of these supermothers, and we admired them from a
distance. Yet privately we despised them. We had been blindsided by how
difficult motherhood was. In our hushed confessions and brutal
self-appraisals, we revealed how very different, diminished, and
isolated we thought we were. We were the Other Mothers, whose daily
blunders and emotional upheavals qualified us for charter admission
into the Other Mothers Club. In reality, of course, there was no such
club, just a couple of Keystone moms admitting truths in exchange for
consolation and understanding. I bribed her with Cheetos! I swatted
her! He bit me! I don’t even like her right now! I can’t do this
anymore! What have I gotten myself into? I want out! What comfort there was in these admissions. And in the easy responses we gave to one another: Of course. I know. I understand. Me too.
were reactions that we might not get from our own mothers or sisters
and would simply not suffice from our husbands. Sincere and patient,
our spouses tried to help us out—and in that gesture alone revealed
that they could never really understand. Help was temporary. Advice was
merely topical. We needed a close and constant source of solidarity.
I was a latecomer to this particular abyss, I had free-fallen before.
Six years earlier, a sloppy heartbreak landed me at—of all the crazy
places—a Zen Buddhist temple. In the silent stillness of these strange
surroundings, I cried my eyes dry. Over more visits and with more
meditation practice, I gradually wore out my restless and petty
schemes, my frantic wishing, and my desperate daydreams of a life with
a different ending. I learned to calm the mental conflagration
consuming me. I stopped beating myself up. I stopped nearly everything.
Sometimes I would even stop thinking. Seconds later I would start up
again, but in the widening space between one blathering thought and the
next, I found a pristine and beckoning peace from my pounding
anxieties. I became a Zen Buddhist, a practice that again and again
brought me back into full possession of my own life.
accidental good fortune that can rise up when you fall apart, I had
wandered into one of the practice centers led by the late teacher
Taizan Maezumi Roshi. This smiling man, slight, polite, and ever so
subtle, was one of the colossal figures in twentieth-century Zen. He
had arrived in Los Angeles in 1956 as one of the first Japanese
teachers to bring Zen to the West. At the time I met him, he was living
his last essential years as a seminal force in American Zen. He died in
Maezumi Roshi said many marvelous and inscrutable
things, but one I remember most vividly is “Your life is your
practice.” Like nearly everything I heard him say, I thought it meant
something else. Something deep and beyond mere mortal comprehension. It
does. But it also means just what it says. Your life is your practice.
Your spiritual practice does not occur someplace other than in your
life right now, and your life is nowhere other than where you are. You
are looking for answers, insight, and wisdom that you already possess.
Live the life in front of you, be the life you are, and see what you
find out for yourself.
Easier said than done, I realize today,
more than ten years after hearing those words for the first time.
Understanding it or not, I did get on with life, laughter, love, work,
matrimony, and the precipitous path of early motherhood. At this point,
grasping for familiar ground, the words echoed back: Your life is your
practice. Oh, you mean this life? This tripping up, breaking down,
crying-out-loud life? This I’m-no-good-as-a-mother life? I turned the
power of silent observation on the chaos within.
All of that
grumbling about Other Mothers was what Zen calls “putting a head on
your head,” conjuring up comparisons, judgments, ruminations, and
criticisms and, in the process, producing interminable suffering in my
own mind. I was doing what we all do but precisely what I had been
taught not to do. The events I describe in this book kept waking me up
and making it clear. One head will do.
Motherhood is a
spiritual practice. It is a crash course in wisdom. It is your
spiritual legacy lying in wait for the taking. How else do you suppose
mothers always end up knowing best? You do not have to mount a formal
spiritual quest to uncover spiritual truths. I have, and it helps me.
But you might not. As a mother, you have many priorities. Those
priorities are nothing but your practice. If you allow it, being a
mother is one of the most amazing, miraculous, mysterious, dignifying,
and illuminating things you will ever do. However the experience
unfolds for you, my aim is to help you cut through to the nub of it and
appreciate things as they are.
There are books that tell you
how to spiritualize your skills as a parent. There are books that
instruct you about Buddhism and Zen, meditation and mindfulness. There
are books that admonish you to be a better parent and thereby produce a
better child. This is not one of those books, although it may inspire
you to pursue all of those things. If so, you no doubt have the
resources to find the information you need.
One day, in the
thick of writing and rewriting this book, I plopped momentarily on the
floor to play dolls with my four-year-old daughter. Then she said
something. She said something innocent, startling, and wise, and I ran
off to my computer to record it. She followed behind,disappointed, and
I told her I had to write down what she had just said.
“Is that book about me?” she puzzled.
“Well, sort of,” I waffled, to console her.
“It’s not a book about motherhood!” she exclaimed, flush with the sudden thrill of discovery. “It’s a book about childhood!”
had beaten me, again, to the full understanding of Master Dogen’s words
about the oneness of mother and child, the understanding that upends
the delusion of being separate and adversarial, the understanding that
unlocks all the answers. The life of a mother is the life of a child:
you are two blossoms on a single branch. It’s only my egocentric point
of view that is limited—the view that I am over here, and she is over
there driving me crazy. To be a fuller, a more compassionate and
even-minded mother, live as though there were no gap and become the
child. Yeah, right. I promise you: there will be times when you see
through the fog of your fears and fatigue and know exactly what I mean.
Your life as a mother will reveal self-evident insights. It
will show you more clearly who you are and what life really is. It will
prove how capable and creative you are, how boundless and free. You are
just not likely to believe it right away. You will suspect that there’s
something you’re not getting, something you’re missing. You’ll think
you’re not clever, good, or natural. This book aims to save you some of
the savagery of your own self-criticism. It offers a tiny bit of help
and a handful of advice, but mostly it gives a close and constant
source of solidarity.
Stuck in stroller traffic, I came to suspect that we were all Other Mothers, or rather, that there was no other
kind. A lifetime supply of insufficiency arrives with the stretch
marks. Moments of self-assurance in motherhood do occur—joyful,
satisfying, and complete—but they are just moments. In between are
long, lonely spells when you feel lost and clueless. Ahead is another
blind curve leading you somewhere you’ve never been. Yes, this
crying-out-loud life is your crooked path, whose bumps and bends cannot
be negotiated through mere reasoning. Time and again you’ll be stripped
of your preconceptions, judgments, ideas, theories, and opinions of
motherhood and left to go straight on through the inexplicable
experience itself. These gulfs of incomprehension bring the opportunity
for spiritual growth and self-acceptance. It is an unexpected gift and
not always recognized. That you recognize your gift is my aspiration
with these recollections. These words thus flow from my heart to yours,
from one other mother to one other mother or mother-to-be. I know. I
understand. Me too.