The On Being Project

The New Better Off

Mothers Must Guard Their Own Solitude

Is there anyone less alone than a mother of young children?

First, they were inside of my body. I was, quite literally, never alone for two different 9-month periods. I was not even alone inside of my own body. As we got closer and closer to birth, the sense of being inhabited became even more real. I would sit on my couch late at night and watch the surface of my belly stretch into strange shapes as one of my girls extended a limb or switched positions. Imagine your liver coming to life and getting the hiccups on a regular basis. It’s that strange.

Then they were born — the most ordinary/extraordinary separation of two beings. A wave of relief — physical, emotional, spiritual — passed through me. But was I alone again? Not at all. A newborn baby is a barnacle. An appendage. The cutest possible parasite you can imagine. The fact that she exited my body made her presence even more demanding. All of the automatic action that my body did to nurture her now had to happen via conscious attention. I have a memo on my phone where I documented my breastfeeding in the early days of my first daughter’s birth. Looking at it now makes me feel light-headed; the unceasing rhythm of it is so daunting, so heavy.

Now that first daughter is three and a half. I’ve been trying to teach her the concept of privacy — a close cousin of solitude. Sometimes when she goes into the bathroom she says, “I would like some privacy,” so we shut the door and give her some time. The other day she found me going to the bathroom and she said, “Would you like some privacy, Momma?” It was like the clouds parted and I could hear the sounds of a choir. “YES!” I said. She stepped inside the bathroom with me, shut the door behind her, and beamed at me.

Sometimes the absence of solitude in my life feels tolerable. I know it’s a season of life, fleeting and fantastic in all its own overwhelming ways. In these moments, I tuck my dreams of being alone away in some special place in my brain. These include:

  • The office with the door where I sit for hours and work uninterrupted on that memoir about generations of women and how we consciously and unconsciously influence one another’s life choices.
  • The day in a lounge chair on a beach where I read for three hours straight without moving.
  • The clawfoot bathtub in which I soak till the water goes cold.
  • The cushion that I rescue from the attic and sit on each empty morning — making good on my lifelong intention of being a person who actually meditates rather than talking about meditating.
  • The meal that I smell appreciatively before eating, then slowly consume one mindful bite at a time, the swallows of wine in between the bites…

Sometimes, those dreams chill sweetly with the promise of a future manifestation. I trust myself to protect them. I trust my children to grow and change. But sometimes, I grow dumb with longing for them now. In those moments I try to read the Sunday New York Times on the sly while “making art” with my daughter and she’s not fooled for a second: “Momma, momma, momma. This is a turtle station. It’s where the sick turtles go to get unsick. Look, Momma. Momma, momma, momma…”

You might wonder, why not rescue my endangered solitude during hours when I have paid childcare? Because I have to make money. And continue developing my professional identity. Perhaps there is no greater anxiety for a mother, or at least one with my particular temperament and family history, than the fear of becoming dependent or professionally unfulfilled. Besides, when I’m not with my girls or working, I am doing the nine million tiny, invisible things that a parent and partner does, or having breakfast at my favorite diner with my dear friend, or biking furiously in order to get to a yoga class.

Even so, I know there is no excuse. Mothers must guard their own solitude. It’s a radical act. It’s the kind of behavior shift that might seem like shallow self-help, but can actually be a profound breaking of a generational curse by which women automatically subsume their own needs and desires and end up sad or sick or bitter. Or dead. There’s that too.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health. And maybe, to Jennifer Stitt’s point, it threatens the whole damn planet. She writes:

“Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness — and conscience — but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life.”

When women don’t take time to hear themselves think, and lead with the wisdom of that listening, we surrender to a degraded fate for the world — one where men with little capacity for solitude (not because of children, but because of terror at their own emotional interiority) rule.

Framed in this way, that clawfoot bathtub takes on urgent significance.

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