Sometimes when you pick up your child you can feel the map of your own bones beneath your hands, or smell the scent of your skin in the nape of his neck. This is the most extraordinary thing about motherhood—finding a piece of yourself separate and apart that all the same you could not live without.— Jodi Picoult, Perfect Match
Last night I had a dream.
In it, I was back in college—not my past, college-age self, but my present-day self. In the dream, this was a bizarre experience, both better and worse than it was at the time. On the one hand, age and experience makes it much easier to be able to handle some of the things that we handled badly at that age. On the other, perspective and an ever-increasing awareness of the preciousness of fleeting time means that’s it’s very hard to take some things seriously, like whether you got an A or a B on some test. At least that’s how it was in the dream, with the result that I would shake my head fondly (but calmly) at the things my fellow matriculates were freaking out about, but attack seriously the things they blew off to have one more beer.
Many of those attending classes with me were actual people I went to college with. Not my close friends, but friends of friends, or people who were just in the same class with me, or lived in dorm rooms next to friends of mine. You know the people I mean: the ones you’d drink with at the parties, or debate points of philosophy with in the library, or perhaps sit with in the cafeteria if there wasn’t anyone else around you knew, but that’s about the extent of it. In the dream, more than going to class, we would sit around and talk about stuff—I don’t know about your college experience, but that was a big part of mine. You’d take some class you never really knew much about before, like anthropology, or psychology, or Eastern religion, and you’d learn these things that blew your mind, and you just had to share them with people. And they were sharing with you the things that they’d learned which had blown their minds. And you all worked together to make these things relevant to your life, dithering over whether the Heisenberg uncertainty principle could be applied to Jung’s theories of déjà vu and synchronicity, or whether believing that the rites of cannibalistic tribes are acceptable for them but not for you was simply intelligent avoidance of ethnocentricity or downright moral relativism. A whole hell of a lot of what you learn in college is just facts: sparkly, and exciting, but useless in isolation. Those long talks over alcohol, nicotine, illicit drugs or no drugs at all, just constant lack of sleep—those were how we developed the framework on which we hung all the pretty facts.
For some reason, all my opinions and outlooks on life surprised my former classmates. Perhaps it was just that they’d never known me that well. But, the more we talked, the more I realized that my responses were peppered with phrases such as “there’s just no way you can maintain that philosophy once you have children.” Which is odd, because all of my perspectives on parenting were developed back in my college days, and they really haven’t changed very much. But none of these disucssion were actually about parenting. They were about ... well, it’s hard to remember—you know how dreams are .. but things such as foreign policy and population control and spirituality vs religion and those sorts of abstract things upon which we all have strong but mostly uninformed positions. But all my ways of looking at the world, my entire weltanschauung (to use a fancy word I learned in college), seemed subtly but irrevocably altered by my fatherhood.
And (I don’t know how I can know this, but, in that strange way of dreams, I do) it wasn’t merely the fact of my fatherhood. It wasn’t just the existence of my children, but the children themselves. Them as individuals, the particular people that they both already are and are growing to be. There is a certain, inexplicable way that any new person you develop a close association with modifies your course in life, but the way that children do so is more profound, somehow.
Abraham Lincoln supposedly once said:
All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.
(A shorter version of the quote is also attributed to George Washington.) So it occurs to me that, if my children are responsible for changing the way I view the world, the ultimate repsonsibility for that lies with their mother.
Now, I’ve explored this concept before, both explicitly and abstractly, but apparently my subconscious felt there was more ground to be covered here. Perhaps the annual recurrence of a day devoted to the celebration of motherhood was just seeping into the undercarriage of my brain. Or perhaps my super-ego is trying to tell me that I need to appreciate The Mother a bit more.
On the one hand, it’s silly that I should need to be reminded to do this. Without her, our children would never get educated, our bills would never get paid, our vacations would never get planned, and very little of our home would ever get improved. Many of us would never get fed ... or would get fed infrequently, at least. Tough to take all that for granted.
On the other hand, it can be too easy to forget the details as life goes whipping by. There’s always something else to quibble over, some point of parenting to disagree about, some monetary issue to agonoize over. Children can be annoying, whether human or otherwise: they pee on the carpet, spill your giant cup of water, feel sick to their stomachs, require help with video games or Legos or having their nails stuck in blankets ... there’s an endless amount of need to deal with, and sometimes you get lost in it, forgetting to pop your head up every now and again and remember how good you’ve got it. Because they also curl up on your lap, nuzzle your legs, chase you around the house, challenge you to games, or just sneak up on you while you’re sitting on the sofa and lick your nose. And none of that—not a single giggle or adoring look or nuzzled neck—would be possible without The Mother.
So one really shouldn’t require an annual day of celebration to remember all these things. But I suppose one does, if only to force one to stop and ponder. How much she has given. Author Elizabeth Stone said:
Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
Author Debra Ginsberg went further:
Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did—that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that—a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.
It’s a lot to risk, bringing a child into the world. More than thrice as much, to risk bringing three, not even considering those who were lost along the way. It’s hard, and joyous, and terrifying, and rewarding, and painful, and the most important, vital, life-affirming thing you get in this difficult, bitter world. I’m lucky enough to have three quite pretty ones, and a mother for them who takes care of them, and of me. It’s perhaps more than I deserve. And a lot to be thankful for.
And I am.