As I continue my ruminations about losses that are necessarily part of maternal life, I am thinking some more this week about letting go. And at the moment I’m thinking of that in terms of being unattached. In particular, I’m thinking about a Buddhist conception of not being invested in any particular model of anything (in my case motherhood), any particular apparent failures in it, any particular successes in it even. Because life does ebb and flow, bringing in much and taking back much more and there’s little point in being invested in any one part of it since it’s sure to change. All of it is impermanent.
The part that is the real struggle for me of incorporating even the mildest version of Buddhist thinking into my life is not being invested in the successes, the high points. Because being invested in those—feeling high in my stellar mom moments—means I’m allowing myself to be buffeted about by things and ideas and experiences outside of me; it means my feelings of contentment or happiness or satisfaction emerge from those stellar mom moments and not from within me. Oh sure, they feel terrific. I mean I don’t know about you but it’s pretty regularly a long time between stellar mom moments for me and I do need a full out dose of maternal excellence now and again and I do feel like I want to drift along in it for a while. So in many ways it seems counterintuitive not to float buoyantly in the high points of motherhood. But the problem with floating around in that is you won’t be buoyant for long; something will happen to bring the high points down—like a day when you’re just a regular mother, focused on one frustrating thing, distracted by another thing, exhausted by a third thing, angered by a fourth (maybe all of these “things” are your kids)—and there you are hitting the dry ground again with no one singing your praises to keep you afloat.
A great deal of the pro-mom literature out there is targeted at ameliorating the feelings of inadequacy that plague many mothers; some say they plague most mothers. And this is most surely a good thing. Unrealistic images of motherhood that are soul-crushing for mothers—not to mention absurdly out of synch with family, work, and social life—crowd our imaginations and our expectations and our fascinations. And all of this warrants that somebody, lots of bodies, target the feelings that countless mothers share of being not good, not competent, not enough. Please please please help those feelings go away.
But there’s a second, equally slicing edge to that sword. And it is equally dependent on the same unrealistic and soul-crushing images of motherhood. It seems different because we’re feeling success instead of failure, proficiency instead of incompetence, joy instead of anguish, but we’re equally dependent on those images. We seem immune to its cuts because we are distracted by the rush from stellar mom moments and we hardly noticed we’ve been nicked again, but the damage is there. Struggling to meet social or cultural expectations for motherhood and succeeding at it give us exactly the same amount of freedom that struggling to meet those expectations and failing at it does—none. Letting go of, becoming detached from, not only those images and expectations but also one’s investment in maternal successes as dependable sources of happiness is a critical element of maternal peace. May we find it.