Her Bad Mother

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Songs of Innocence and Experience

One of the most difficult things about pregnancy, for me, was that it forced me to confront myself as a biological creature. It forced me to experience myself as a body, as a being put entirely into the service of nature. My every wakeful - and not so wakeful - moment was spent in a state of hyper-consciousness about my physicality: I was nurturing a life, and that life depended upon my physical being, and no force of intellect or imagination could alter or facilitate or intercede in that dependency. And as a person who had spent all of her conscious years in her head - and someone who was well-trained in a school of philosophical thought that emphasizes the absolute primacy of mind over body, reason over appetite and base sense - this was very, very hard for me.

So I was anxious - anxious beyond measure - about birth and new motherhood, which I perceived as a broadening and deepening of this experience. I didn't fear it, exactly: I wanted the experience. Every fibre of my physical being strained toward this experience, and demanded that my mind follow - this, in itself, was disconcerting. The thing of it was, rather, that I doubted my ability to stay the course: how would I ever, ever find my way through this dense thicket, this overwhelming jungle, without maps, without books, without the compass of my intellect? How would I survive, if I had only the thrum of my senses to guide me?

I learned, of course. This education came with difficulty: I spent weeks, months, trying to beat back heavy, fear-dampened branches with dog-eared tomes of advice on navigating the brave new world of motherhood (tomes written, no less, by only the most theoretical of explorers, explorers - men - who had only scanned this landscape through spyglasses, safe on their ships, far from these strange shores), only to discover that while these might force the branches back for a moment, it would only be for a moment, before the branches would lash back and knock me off my feet.

I put the books away. I put the books away and set about listening to the thrum of my senses, and discovered, slowly, that doing what felt right kept me on the clearest course. I navigated my way (with no small assistance from others lost in the same wood, shouting encouragement and direction) through breastfeeding and swaddling and sleep and sleep and sleep and crying-it-out and the first signs of spiritedness, guided by my senses and by the gentle prodding of the sympathetic hands of fellow travellers. I found my way. And now, even when I lose my way, which I still do, I know to trust myself and the kindness of fellows in finding my way back. I know what to do.

The knowledge came, however, in more than the form of a sense of direction. I came to know the the unparalleled joy of allowing myself to embrace my biology, my physicality - and the unparalleled bliss that comes with bonding oneself with, binding oneself to, another creature, and having that creature be bound to you, so tightly, so deeply, that you are really are as one, one physical being, with one bonded heart and one bonded soul. We know something of this bond in love, in erotic love, but only ever fleetingly, in the sweet interstices of romantic companionship; we are never fully, physically bound to our other, no matter what we think Plato might have said, through Socrates, about our souls' other halves - we are complete souls, we adult beings, and although our greatest happinesses come with allowing our souls to join hands with others, we never merge souls, not really.

Except, that is, when we have a baby. Then we know - if only for a moment, for one long, sweet moment - what it is to be more than one, to be one plus, to have split open and spilled out our blood and our viscera and our spirit and gathered it all back up again in our arms and held it, tight, pressed it to our chests, felt it throbbing and squirming and to have known, to know, what it is to hold one's soul in one's arms.

And then to have it pulled away. Because this is what is inevitable, this is what the books can't tell you, this what no mother can escape: from the moment your child, your soul, is handed to you, whether that child has been pulled from your gut or yanked out from between your legs or flown from across the sea, whether your soul comes to you in gore or wrapped in white cotton sheets, your possession of it - of him, of her - is temporary. Mind-spinningly temporary. Every second, every heartbeat, that passes from the moment you clutch your second soul, your little soul, in your arms, takes that soul away from you. Every moment is a moment of growth, and every moment of growth loosens your grip. And you must keep holding, you must keep your arms outstretched, but you can't, you mustn't, fight to hold on.

This, then, is the art of motherhood, and it is not an art of the mind: to hold on and let go, at the same time.

We are constantly letting go: when they are pulled from our arms for the first time, when they stretch out their arms to someone else for the first time, when they first say no. When they first push themselves out of our arms, when they crawl, when they walk, little feet carrying them away. When they wean. When they wave bye-bye without shedding a tear. When they fall down and they hurt and turn to someone else for comfort. When they grow, when they live - with every step that they take they are moving away from us. And it is our task to navigate this ongoing, this infinite, separation with love and with grace.

But once you have learned to know with your body - to have reached far, far beyond carnal knowledge and the intoxicating wisdom of the flesh - to know, fully, what it is to be a body with a soul threaded, literally and figuratively, to its heart, a soul that can give birth to itself, take form, be held oh so tightly and then let go - once you have this knowledge, you are, truly, naked, vulnerable, exposed, open to untold hurts, to infinite pains, to the unshakeable awareness of loss. This is knowledge, and this knowledge thrills, and stings.

So it is that we mothers are ever walking out of the Garden, cursing and praising the heavens, grasping at roses, pricking our heels on thorns.

(For Katie, who has put the boobies away, and for all you others who, like me, came home to find that our little souls had grown - and taken one, two, many steps further away from us - in our absence.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is exactly how I felt upon returning home. And my tears are flowing because I get it. I get it and I love and I hate it.

Thank you for writing this. I couldn't put it into words, but you did! Thank you.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Candygirlflies said...

Oh, so beautiful, and so gut-wrenchingly true... every single word.

I have three little girls, and am hanging on to their childhoods for dear life!! We can't afford to let a single second of this brief and fleeting time slip through our fingers...

And like you, it was once I put the books away that I REALLY started "mothering"... My wonderful doctor gave me such confidence, by saying, "YOU are the mother!! YOU know her better than anybody!!"

It's so important that we empower ourselves, and each other, to mother our children as only WE know how. There's just too much Big Business in selling insecurity to new parents these days...

1:43 PM  
Blogger Jess said...

Beautifully done, C. Just beautiful.

You always make me think, and nod my head, and often blink back a 'in the trenches too' tear....

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Each one of those books, like the books that you mentioned that got put away should have to include this in the introduction. This is what no book can teach you.

Simply gorgeous. And heartwrenching.

At the same time.

2:13 PM  
Blogger karengreeners said...

Well, even though we felt differently going in to the experience - I gave my body to the baby and biology with ease and pleasure and experienced little anxiety - the outcome is the same. Always the same. Sigh.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This strikes me as very much What Blake Means.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"once you have this knowledge, you are, truly, naked, vulnerable, exposed, open to untold hurts, to infinite pains, to the unshakeable awareness of loss."

This is so true HBM. Sometimes I think about how much easier my life was before motherhood. But even though life is so much more painful as a mother, it is also more complete for me. I recognize and appreciate beauty and goodness in a way that I never used to.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This so mirrors my experience of pregnancy and mothering -- the visceral sense of being led by the body. I have a friend who never quite put away the books, who in fact continues to mother and make her decisions largely through the books because that is where she is most comfortable. I, too, prefer to go with my gut, intuition and the memory of "the body" that my son and I still share, even though he grows daily away from me.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Julie Pippert said...


All we can be a still pair of hands for the bird to alight on when needed.

What's also amazing is how different #2 is from #2 in the sense of priority system and moving away. My role as mom is so different the second time. But that's another post for another day...

My two are bigger now. Over the summer so much so. What fit at the end of spring--clothing, attitudes, methods of dealing---no longer fits.

Now...time for public school...

Ravin' Picture Maven

2:54 PM  
Blogger Julie Pippert said...

Excuse me LOL! I meant how different #2 is from #1!

Ravin' Picture Maven

2:55 PM  
Blogger Motherhood Uncensored said...

It's the push and pull -- the drawing in and letting go -- and when to know when to do them that makes motherhood so challenging.

Well, that and the tantrums.

2:55 PM  
Blogger jora said...

I just found your blog today. What an incredible post to start with! So moving, so true, it had me weeping .... Thank you for putting into words what it feels like to be a mother.

3:00 PM  
Blogger flutter said...

I hope that one day I can feel all of this for one of my own. All of the pain, and the exquisite sweetness and the merging of souls, and the holding of hands.

This was beautiful

3:06 PM  
Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Damn, HBM. This is it. This is motherhood. Beautifully put.

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"what it is to hold one's soul in one's arms."

Ack. Sniff. This whole post just explained it all so beautifully. Being a mom is the hardest thing I have ever done. Physically, emotionally, mentally. At times being a mother has actually made my soul hurt...if that is even possible.

I am always in awe of what you write here.

3:10 PM  
Blogger motherbumper said...

Dammit - you made me cry. And you know how much I hate to admit I'm not a robot or perfect. Thank you HBM, I was thinking of our conversation the entire way through this read and I allowed the tears to fall right at the bottom. Where are you? Can I hug ya' now? Thank you for understanding - you weave wonderful words that get right in my head.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Once again a beautifully poetic post. You are such a wonderful writer, thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

So lovely. So true.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've just put the boobies away too... BlogHer done dried me up (and I was not averse to that, TBH)

Bittersweet, though. To know never again...

3:50 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

Oh lovely. As I was reading this, the part about holding on, I was having the image of that fairy tale, Tam Lin, where he changes form over and over, into sometimes horrible things (cough*teenagers*cough), and she holds on because she loves him and in the end, he is freed and they can live together in peace.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Every post I read makes me want to kick myself. I wish I would have had enough guts to approach you at BlogHer!

Next year? Perhaps?

Will be thinking of this post next week Monday. When my son goes to kindergarten for the first time. Letting go.... So hard to do!

4:20 PM  
Blogger crazymumma said...

bittersweet huh? Beautiful post hon...

4:38 PM  
Blogger S said...

this is precisely what i find most poignant about parenthood -- we are raising them to leave us. thinking anything else is folly.

5:08 PM  
Blogger tracey.becker1@gmail.com said...

Yep. Our souls running around and further and further away from us... while holding scissors, laughing with head thrown back and next to a cliff, nonetheless!

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With one about to be 27 and the youngest being 6, it's a lot of years to sustain.
Best wishes

7:39 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

if i knew how to hand you an award for the beautiful writing and heart achy truth to this i so would. i LOVED this.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Jezer said...

This is every mother's perpetual ache. You captured it perfectly.

8:45 PM  
Blogger b*babbler said...

So very beautiful. You are so eloquent, putting into words what so many of us feel.

The Peanut has started moving, really moving in the last couple of weeks, and I can feel the pull, the strain as she pulls away to explore the world, and it makes me so proud, yet so unbearably sad. Thank you for putting into words what I'm feeling right now.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Heather B. said...

Over the weekend a friend of mine (no, not you) and I were discussing pregnancy after I had decided never to have children (there was a mall play place. the end.) She explained how weird it all was and I was reminded of what my mother told me once that the whole thing was weird but in a good way. They both explained the 'sordid' thing far more eloquently than I ever could, but hope that one day, I can look back on my pregnancy and the act of bringing a child into this world in such a way.

Which will mean more cohesive thoughts to the entire process other than "durrr." We'll see how that goes.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Utterly exquisite. Now stop that, woman. You're making me cry in front of the Mister.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Run ANC said...

Hard, isn't it? But it's the hard that makes it good.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Liv said...

They do get away from us fast, don't they. Sweet post.

12:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I am reading this my soul is punching me in the cervix...

Thank you for this beautiful post. My second pregnancy has been much less anxious than the first and yet I haven't really been able to slow down and enjoy it. This post reminded me how important and special this time is - when she is just my own, when I don't have to share her, when I don't have to ever leave her even for a second. It is unique in the motherhood timeline and since this is probably (and by probably I mean most definitely) the last time I want to savor it a little bit more.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with considering it as an experience. It would be a good way of dealing with new things. I'm always up for a great challenge.

1:49 AM  
Blogger Lara said...

i actually feel a little guilty now for having grown up and become a separate person from my mom. but you know what? there is a lot of really cool stuff that comes along with that separation. and even though my mom and i are separate people, we are always connected. i can feel it. all the time.

2:29 AM  
Blogger JChevais said...


4:13 AM  
Blogger ewe are here said...

Lovely post. And I love the part about holding on and letting go at the same time... so true, so very true.

(Although, I have to admit, after I read the first few lines my in initial thoughts were 'Ye, Gawds, she's pregnant! No! Wait! She just spent a long weekend carousing in Chicago, she can't be! Keep reading, keep reading!)
heh heh)

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn. You do it to me every time.

That was once again, awesome.

I am so right in there.

I put the books away too...they frustrated me and made me feel inferior.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Greg said...


8:00 AM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

jchevais - I won't be nearly so coy if I find myself pregnant. Expect to just see a picture of a pee-drenched EPT stick.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Mimi said...

I have always found it the cruellest part of motherhood, this intensity of early infancy and toddlerhood that binds you closer to your child than you have ever been to anyone else. You have to. You want to. Even while you know (especially the overthinkers among us) you KNOW that all you are doing is setting yourself up for the heartbreak--the necessary, the healthy, the appropriate hearthbreak--of the slow climb of identity, independence, growing up.


10:19 AM  
Blogger Lisa Dunick said...

Chillingly beautiful-- you've put into words everything I feel and everything I fear that I won't be able to do.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just shared this post with every mommy friend I have. THIS explains (in the most beautifully raw and gutwrenching way possible) the feelings I've been having that I have failed miserably at trying to explain. Thank You.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Tere said...

So, so beautiful. As always. Wonderful.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Bon said...

ah, this was lovely.

i too lived in my head for so long before pregnancy - and then had both body and mind subjected to the brutality of grief before i ever got much more than a taste of that being more than one, that joining with another - but now, just now, as O learns language and "no", i am finding this falling in love and letting go an incredible art.

you have a way of looking at parenting that always makes me gasp, HBM. beautiful post.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

i never read those books. how can they tell me to mother? i admit i'm the worst but at times, i'm pretty darn good.

'intuition' is all i can say.

i'm having a very hard time watching my 4 year old grow up and demand to be alone. everyday, i realize, soon, she'll be leaving me and it's such a hard concept to handle. then again, i don't want to be my mother, who totally held on too tight.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I know just what you're feeling. I shared this at Mommy Blog Roundup http://mommyblogroundup.blogspot.com/

Hope you don't mind.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Homestead said...

A-men say I. Good one.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Mean Mommy - you're welcome to it. And thanks.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my HOLY, that was beautiful. Makes me want to pack up my blog and slip away into the night because I can't compare even slightly to one paragraph of it. I am bookmarking this for every step further my boyo takes from me, so I can feel like I've got someone commiserating with me as I cry over it. Thanks for this.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So it is that we mothers are ever walking out of the Garden, cursing and praising the heavens, grasping at roses, pricking our heels on thorns."

THIS is an immotal quote. I read the whole post all the while pulling away from it and telling myself that it's not like that fot me. That I'm proud to see her stand on her own legs and that it only makes me feel more confident that I'm giving her the skills she needs to show the rest of the world how amazing she is. But that line forced me to really savour the message and I realize that she hasn't really started to leave yet. That that is somewhere in a foggy future and like the death of my mother that will one day come, I refuse to allow myself the pain of contemplating the inevitability of it all. I can no more do it than hold my hand over an open flame.

9:29 PM  
Blogger moplans said...

I felt the same way about the biology foisted upon me dragging me out of my head and I am a biology teacher. It was all too gross for me. I took PLANT, not animal, bio for a reason.
I am trying not to be so sad that this one won't nurse as the demands of being the sole food source for the first one almost drove me insane.
This is beautifully written as always Catherine. It captures so well the conflicting feelings and demands.
But damn that motherbumper is always crying these days heh?

9:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Motherhood is a great experience. It has always been a big challenge, but it's also my source of strength during the dark times.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I found amusing about the pregnancy process was that I refused to think of myself as a biological creature. And pregnancy books encourage that--they give you this illusion of control. It was only later when I saw the absurdity of that.

Getting older has biologized me more...I think when I was younger I could be more in denial about the plain facts.

Oh, the weaning. This will ever be bittersweet.

12:02 AM  
Blogger Cathy, Amy and Kristina said...

You just gave me goosebumps.

Beautiful post.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh catherine this is what we must do ...it is the most heartwrenching and yet gives us pride as mothers in a job well done when we let go...LAVENDULA

11:17 AM  
Blogger Ruth Dynamite said...

A masterpiece, Catherine. Once again, you've spoken the truth with piercing eloquence.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Indigo Children said...

That hurts to read. Thanks for giving words to a complex truth.

1:24 AM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Ozma - that's it exactly. They almost never encourage you to give yourself over to the biological inevitabilities of the whole process. They perpetuate the idea that we *can* think our ways through this. Which we can't. We just can't.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Nora said...


1:33 AM  
Blogger mo-wo said...

When I began.. I was too lucky to have 3 or 4 good souls told me that it was in me in more ways than one.

But not one told me I could be replaced by what came after. I feel you capture the ethereal moroseness of it all. For me, I'll say. The very notion that I am completed as a being that their existence and persistence more than fills the hole I have dug out for myself. The nothing of my being remains necessary but where it might grow them a bit more -- like it did at womb-stage.

Gawd that makes my everything else completely superfluous? Superficial?

I need a drink.

2:22 AM  
Blogger Jenifer said...


How dare you...

My daughter just turned 3 yesterday and boy did you just make me cry.

In a good way though. Your writing never ceases to amaze me.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Dawn Johnson Warren said...

Catching up after just finding this blog today. I tried to articulate these very thoughts a few months ago but was nowhere near eloquent. So thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your beautiful ability to write. With each of my twin boys' new achievements I find joy, but I also feel them pulling away and know that this is one of the pains of motherhood. Thank you again for creating the imagery of how it feels.

11:07 PM  

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