Stepping Twice Into Family Rivers

08 Sep

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I’ve been absent from my usual mama blogging regimen for three weeks, having taken myself on a writing retreat one week (eight days actually, which I did blog daily about, beginning here), getting overloaded at work as the new university semester got into gear the next week, and working through my father’s recent heart attack and hospitalization (he’s home now and improving) the next. But I’m back on the Thursday gig and hopefully can remain on it; many thanks to my regular readers for sticking with me till I could return.

I’m really not one to call on the old dead Greek guys much. But if you’ll forgive me this once, I’d like to invoke today the wisdom of Heraclitus, a philosopher of ancient Greece. Heraclitus is famous, perhaps among other things, for observing that no one can step twice into the same river. As soon as one puts a foot in, his thinking went, the water in that place is already moving so swiftly and changing so significantly that if one stepped into that spot again, she’d be in quite a different space; for all intents and purposes, she’d be in a different river. I think motherhood is like that.

It’s impossible, in many ways, to mother in the same way twice. Now of course we establish patterns and habits and preferences. We often work from a cluster of perspectives that might remain common across multiple contexts. We try to repeat what works. (Of course we also try to repeat what didn’t work, hoping, futilely, that this time it will, but that’s another story. BTW, while we’re invoking dead guy wisdom, Einstein is often credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Don’t bring that up with the folks at though, because they take definitions of insanity pretty seriously.) But like Heraclitus’ river, the context in which we mother changes, our thinking changes, our children change, our urgencies change. Our parents get older, our work gets more complicated/interesting, or less complicated/interesting. Our partners change. Our commitment to certain principles wax and wane as we move through life based on what we’ve experienced or observed or felt or heard. And all of this has impact (a word I’ve only used, and supported its use, in the singular, until the recent television coverage of Hurricane Irene, where they kept referring to impacts in the plural, so I’ve sort of given up on holding steadfast to the sanctity of the singular on this one) for the way a woman mothers.

I think we hold onto an idea that its always best to “stay the course,” a mindset that most likely has roots in a working class ethic but that gained and lost currency with a recent presidential administration. But the fact of the matter is that new information ought have the capacity to change one’s course. And for that matter, the absence of new information ought have the capacity to change one’s course as well (if someone repeatedly treats us badly, for example, we may need to develop new responses to them) One of the great conundrums of motherhood is grounded in needing to simultaneously treat our children the same and treat them differently, to be consistent in our parenting practices across children and respond to them differently as individuals. It gets further complicated by the fact that we change as women, as individuals, even as the circumstances in which we mother do. So really it makes no sense that we would be the same mother with one child as we are to a later one, as I’ve noted in a previous post, or that we could be the same mother when we are students as when are professionals, or that we’d feel the same about our child’s teen angst when we’re dealing with healthy parents as we feel about it when we’re dealing with a parent’s stroke or a heart attack or later life in general. The family ‘river’ into which we step as time passes is a different one, requiring of us that we wade through it always modifying for the river it is, rather than the one it was.


Posted by on September 8, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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7 responses to “Stepping Twice Into Family Rivers

  1. Erin Willis

    September 8, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    This is a great article, it fits the new life I feel like I steped into last week. Some changes are unexpected and far out of our control.

  2. K.A. Dorgan

    September 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I was JUST thinking about your post this weekend–while my son was snapping into action [because he responds to a more militant approach], my partner’s kids [girl, 7 and boy, 5] were proving to be quite resistant to my parenting techniques. After listening to my crisply barked “orders” about what to do, the boy immediately disappeared under his bed and the girl stood paralyzed and teary-eyed in her room. What’s a Militant Mom to do when her little soldiers don’t find her orders the least bit interesting, necessary or relevant? She resigns her command, I guess 🙂


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