I go to the things I love, with no thought of duty or pity.
-H.D., The Flowering of the Rod
About a year ago I decided I would try, more or less, to live by HDs words in The Flowering of the Rod. I would try to be authentic. Try live to out the truth of my desire and see where that took me. Traditionally, much of the glory of parenting- the bragging rights- is rooted in self sacrifice. That you survived it. That it was a tough labour but you did it without painkillers anyways. That those sleepless nights were awful, and you haven’t had a shower alone for years and you haven’t bought new pants since before the first one was born. We have a rich history of finding meaning in suffering in the West. Which is understandable, given how solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short human life has been until this point in history. But maybe it is time, now that we have c-sections and washing machines and antibiotics and leisure time and disposable income and a good deal of choice, to claim meaning, not only in suffering, but in whatever it is we find personally enjoyable. Whatever it is that adds substance to our identity. If duty and pity erase us, going towards what we love and who we love and who we are loved by adds psychic mass to our soul-bones.
Just after R. was born I carved out a little a little extra time to cycle to pick up a veg box from a local scheme en route to therapy. I suppose I could have done it out of pity-I could have conscientiously supported a local veg scheme for the good of the community and the environment -and I could have done it dutifully, feeding my family organic produce, going literally out of my way to be a perfect mum. But adjacent to those motives, an embryonic possibility came into being. I began to have a sense that there might be something in it for me. I did not have to be obliterated by my role as a mother: I could keep my head above water if I held on tightly to what I enjoy, if I allowed myself my own desire to buoy me. It felt indulgent to pedal alone, slowly, in the afternoon sunlight at a time when every second, waking or sleeping, was spoken for. And even more indulgent, each precious organic carrot had to be lovingly hand scrubbed. They were so caked with soil, there was no choice in the matter. But I loved taking out the designated veg brush and going over each beautiful, expensive bit of muddy produce one at a time. It also occurred to me that I could walk five minutes down the road and buy a bag of pre washed organic carrots from Lidl for half the price. But that would have been an act of self-erasure. I use this example because my own pleasure might easily have been hijacked by duty or pity in this ordinary domestic act. It could easily have become a chore or drudgery to cycle and wash the veg if it had not, first of all, struck me as an ordinary luxury I might enjoy for its own sake. For my sake. That this veg box situation was good for my family and community was secondary, and I think that is what felt so indulgent. That I knew I was doing it for me, that I prioritised my own enjoyment over abstract moral principles. It is a cheap thrill.
Therapy has taught me the value of ruthlessly holding on to ourselves while we tend to the needs of others. This dual attention act is electrifying. It is being aware of what my child needs and also what is in it for me. Or a partner’s need, or a friend or a community. It is a way of keeping one foot in subjective meaning making and one foot in shared, ‘objective’ reality. I kind of can’t get enough of it. I call it reverie, and it is the basis of play for me, which I write about in greater depth here.
I also love that it is not a creed, or a dogma. That it is a state of mind. This holding-onto-self-in-relation-to-another is open for interpretation, because for some parents it means hiring a nanny and perusing a career, and some parents it means acts of self care outside the home like a haircut or a night out. You don’t have to be a parent to appreciate this tension between self-and-other. Anyone who has ever lived in human company knows this problem of reconciling ones own particular needs with someone else’s flourishing. And there are lots of solutions and balancing tricks. For me it means knowing what I get out of it all, daily, hourly. It means making room in my consciousness for the question, ‘what’s in it for me?’ There is no right answer to this question, it just exists for me to play with. It might look different day to day. It is simply a way into my own life, so that I’m not living on this mortal coil only for others, for their needs. It is a question that lets me keep my soul. So I can turn up to my own life. So that my whole identity is not washed away by caregiving. It means I am able to be present and in myself enough to be in relationship with the other and in relationship with myself, simultaneously. And every morning, when he wakes me with his calls of good morning and mummy I want some milk from the other room, before I tend to him and begin my responsibilities, I ruthlessly take in a breath or two. And those breaths are mine, I take them into my body just for me.
Copyright 2018 Diana Smith