Published on July 10th, 2018 | by Maryam A. Ansari0
The Fog of Shoulds
In the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, I consumed pregnancy books and articles with ferocious appetite. Still pregnant, I decided I would have the most natural birth ever and win all the Pinterest/Instagram parenting awards. I would be perfect at this mothering thing. You know where this is going right? Yes, you do but stay with me.
I hired a midwife and a doula, as one does. My doula was a keenly intuitive yoga teacher and actress. As we sat across from each other, she suggested that maybe I had read everything there was worth to read. I considered her viewpoint and decided I couldn’t possibly listen to it, since it wasn’t printed in a book. I kept reading, from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding to Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, and went on to have a 40+ hours labor which resulted in an emergency c-section. After my recovery, I too, like many women, struggled to accept that all had not gone according to “birth plan,” and I had not been able to miraculously listen to my body and pop out the baby in orgasmic breaths. I mourned only briefly before I moved on to try and win at breastfeeding, and then onto the next and the next and the next….
When it comes to mothering, little goes according to my plans: my kids never sleep the way I expect them to despite sleep training, I can never predict how long their naps will be, neither of them operates on a strict schedule like so many children in “the books” do, one outgrows clothes I’ve just bought her, while the other has worn the same clothes for a year, I have no idea how to discipline or not discipline them, and on and on.
For a perfectionist, this murkiness is hard to accept. I want to be right, parent correctly. But I’m not just a perfectionist. I also happen to be a writer and artist who’s been painfully blocked for years. Every time I sit down to write or draw, I first have to battle the chorus of voices asking me:
“What is the point? Your boat has sailed!”
“But have you read this other poem/essay though? You’ll never be as good as this writer.”
“You know you will embarrass your family with this right? Are you ready to embarrass your family?”
Inevitably, I abandon whatever I’m working on and go back to pouring in all that frustration into parenting “by the book.” This tension has made for some volatile times in raising my girls. I was so committed to being Best Mother Ever, I poured all of my inner and outer resources into my children, particularly the first one— scouring the parenting message boards, researching the best shoes, the “right” crib mattress and on and one.
After the birth of my second daughter, I decided no more parenting books. Of course that meant only one or two parenting books, as opposed to the five or six that I had previously consumed. It began to dawn on me that The Books don’t know my daughters, they don’t know me, they don’t know my family. They don’t know what inner resources I may or may not have available at 3am, night after night. They don’t know how many months I can survive without REM sleep.
I continued to bumble through, often losing my temper at my daughters for seemingly trivial things. Even though I had stopped reading, the expectations of what parenting and mothering should be blared in my head. Across my screen appeared posed photos of moms and babies seemingly loving every single moment together, meanwhile I was going into flying rages out of absolutely nowhere, confusing and scaring myself and my kids. One minute I would say, “Ok let’s try to take a deep breath sweetie, it’s going to be okay,” and the next second I would snap and pull my misbehaving three year old to the timeout corner. Mothering in those moments felt like driving downhill without brakes, I never knew when I would completely lose control. I discovered I had postpartum depression due to the consistent lack of sleep. I sought out a therapist and she helped a little bit; her message essentially was, take care of yourself and wait it out.
I began trying to figure out what taking care of myself looked like.
One day last year, I sat fretting about how tiny our home was and how I could not give my girls a dedicated space to make art, a place where they could just come to play, draw, color and create. I began to clear out some space on our bookshelves and reconfigure our living room. In the middle of hauling piles of books, it struck me: I was the one who needed a dedicated place in my home where I could just come to play, draw, color and create. I brushed the thought aside because Best Mothers Ever don’t play or have fun. They research and ask their online parenting group for advice.
We live in a cramped two bedroom, one bath home, and I didn’t see how I could possibly make any space for myself. But, when I brought up the idea to my husband, he was all for it. I cautiously started a pinterest vision board. I pinned pictures of large wooden desks, plants with jewel green leaves fanning out, black and white patterned cushions, brass lamps and colorful rugs. I glanced at it every now and then didn’t pay much attention to it beyond that.
Finally, October came around and I received a bonus at work. Since the money was “extra” I felt justified to spend it on myself. The first item from my board that I purchased was a pennant from an independent store, declaring “Mothers are Creators.” This was my centerpiece, my inspiration, my permission slip.
What had felt so impossible to me, now seemed only inevitable. I found a desk on sale on Craigslist and arranged to pick it up that night. I discovered the woman who was selling it had two daughters in their thirties and owned a drum studio as well as a natural arts healing center. It somehow made sense. I cleared out the bookshelf in my bedroom, took it out to the garage. As soon as my husband came home, he jumped in and began helping me lift furniture, reposition the carpet, and yes, our two toddlers hopped around in dust bunnies and piles of random things with the understanding that something was happening.
Around the desk I hung up art that I loved: the hand embroidery I had bought when we traveled to Puerto Vallarta; the portrait my husband had made of me before we got married; a picture of my daughters. And then I sat. And I sat and I sat. I had a place. I was not ready to write or draw just yet but I was ready to maybe listen to my own voice.
I had no idea parenthood would mean having to confront all those locked, barricaded rooms within my body that I stopped visiting. That I would need to be brave enough to dig out the dust and cadavers, see what needs to be revived and what needs to be buried. That I would have to find a way to make space for myself in my own life and body, because for so many years, I’ve stayed committed to being the smallest, least colorful version of myself.
It is a strange, circular process, this coming home to myself. When you realize you too are crowded with the voices of others, it is possible to turn off those voices and find your own. It is a gradual practice that needs to be repeated every day, sometimes every hour, and begins with lowering the volume on the “shoulds.” I’m still working through it. There are still flashes of rage, and I’m learning to listen to my anger, as well. Speaking to it and welcoming it, as a wise friend advised me to do.
Suddenly I can see and hear my daughters clearly, instead of through the fog of shoulds. I see them and hear them just as they are, “wiggling like spaghetti and potatoes,” as my eldest described herself and her little sister in the bathtub the other night.
This is a scary place to be. I wish there was “a book,” one that offered a foolproof plan and then I could blame someone else if it goes wrong. But I’m finally at a place where I can begin writing my own stories.
Photos courtesy of the author; art courtesy of the author’s instagram.