“The best thing a mother can teach her children is how to need her as little as possible,” I like to tell an imaginary television camera in the car after dropping Lizzie off at preschool. “I am a mother, yes, but also a woman, a person, a soul worth growing for its own sake. If I lose sight of that, I will have failed both myself and my children.” I picture myself saying it to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and to Barbara Walters (she’d LOVE it) on 20/20. I will wear my hair down, dress beautifully but not ostentatiously, and listen as much as I speak (this last part would most likely be the hardest to pull off).
Then someone honks at me –the light has turned green. I have to stop fantasizing so I don’t start mowing down old people on the sidewalk with my sexy minivan.
Regardless of whether I ever get the opportunity to say it on camera, I have always believed we women must nurture our original selves as we are raising our children, if for no other reason than because mothering demands nothing less than a whole, enlightened, educated, talented, healthy, flexible woman. Still, having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.
If I do my job well, my children will gradually leave me. First they will stop asking me to get them brefgast and Cheery-lows and pisketti. Then they will stop coming to me when the mean stister called the nother stister Cookie Face (they find this SO insulting) or when someone can’t find his Lego Harry Potter’s microscopic hand and wand. Next they’ll start turning to their friends when they have a secret or an idea. Or when they need feedback about whether something is cool or not (even at the height of my powers, I would never be able to help them with that). Eventually, I won’t see them for weeks at a time as they hole up in their rooms listening to mopey music and/or writing poems to boys or girls who don’t know they exist. They’ll go off to college or on tour with their basement bands, calling only to tell me he’s changed his major to celebrity portrait painting or that she needs more tattoo money.
Having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.
This is all as it should be, but then what will happen to me? Will I be able to find myself under all the layers of anxiety, impatience, indignity, and confusion pressing on my tender psyche over the years? Will I have raised a good, strong self at the same time? Will I ever be able to think about anything else besides what or who might hurt my babies? Once I have the freedom to do whatever I want, will I know what it is?
This weekend, the Drewlets all left for two days and two nights on sleepovers with the grandparents so Brian and I could work on home projects. I returned to my quiet, empty house after the last round of forgot-to-give-you-this minivan deliveries and felt relief, yes, but also a low-grade, buzzing uneasiness –the kind I get when I’m sitting in a movie and am suddenly unsure whether I unhooked my iPod and locked my car. I THINK I took care of everything but I’m not SURE I took care of everything.
Would Henry get enough sleep at his grandparents’ house to recover from his tiny man-cold (the one that had him moaning and keening like a Sicilian widow the night before) so he’d be healthy enough for his swim meet on Saturday? Would he be as scared as last time? Would Lizzie refuse (again) to eat her dinner and get hypoglycemic in the middle of the night? Did I remember to warn my dad about that? Would Caroline stay in her little bed at my mom’s house all night? Or would she start wandering at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning like she did last winter, maybe get hurt in the big dark house and not be found until morning?
A rich imagination is a great gift for a writer and a horrible curse for a mother. My memory is the same way. You may say my fears are irrational. You may be right. But I have a picture in my mind of Henry in the back seat of my car before a swim meet last winter, tears in his other-worldly eyes, trying to take deep breaths, get on top of his nerves, be brave enough to at least go inside and change into his suit. I have a picture in my mind of my Lizzie, sweaty and shaking at 11:00 at night as we tried to feed her a granola bar and get her to tell us who I was, who Brian was.
I have so many pictures in my mind of my vulnerable Caroline that I don’t even know which one to mention here. In my memory, she always has electrode glue in her hair and is crying “all done that part!” as the nurses try a second time to get the IV in. If I am a pathological worrier, I am forgiven. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve had to do over the last five years to get my kids, safe and whole, to now, to Grandma and Grandpa’s houses this weekend. Unless you have little people in your care. Then you would believe it — and have probably lived it.
My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self.
I worry about me, too. Am I going to be okay or am I permanently damaged by the particularly intense mothering I’ve had to do? Can my original self and my modern self get along? I felt almost awkward being alone with myself on Friday night, like I was hosting for the weekend a cousin I had been close to in childhood but now barely knew. What did she like to do? How should I entertain her? Would she be willing to eat Cap’n Crunch? (I hoped so, because there wasn’t much else in the pantry.)
What would she think about the obscure reality shows Brian and I like to watch these days, like Storage Wars and BBQ Pitmasters? Would she judge me? SHOULDN’T she judge me? Would she be able to pee without a panel of tiny commentators standing in the bathroom with her? Would walking through a greenhouse or garden center make her feel instantly contented and hopeful like it used to or would it take more than that? What would it take? Was she still likely to skip meals if she was really into some creative or organizational project? I knew her so well back then, but who was she now? How would we pass the time? Would she lecture me about getting some exercise?
Well yeah, she lectured me a little bit (my original self loves to lecture –we have that in common). It turned out that my modern self, the soul I’ve been trying when I can to grow and nurture alongside my children, is mostly compatible with my original self. The me I believed I had abandoned in the Children’s Hospital ICU in 2008 was still there.
I saw her at about 1:30 on Sunday afternoon when I realized I’d been so intent on cleaning out the laundry room that I had eaten almost nothing. We walked through Bachman’s together in search of houseplants, my original self and I, our heart slowing down and filling up; it didn’t take any more than that to restore either one of us. Relief. Yes, of course the Original Marta was willing to eat Cap’n Crunch –I needn’t have worried about that one– and was most impressed with Modern Marta for thinking to eat it at night with ice-cold whole milk, which is way more delicious and superhealthy than ice cream. Peeing without an audience went just fine for us too, thank you for asking.
My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self. I’ve been taking better care of her than I thought –let’s hope the same is true for my kids. She was disappointed to see that I was buying faux-plants, which she considered tacky and unworthy of our green thumb. I explained the house is dark, we need some shots of green, I bought convincing ones, and we could never keep real English ivies or ferns alive in the winter anyway. She couldn’t argue with that.
My modern self woke up at 5:45 on Saturday morning, freaked out about whether Lizzie had fallen out of bed or Caroline had wandered out of her room. The old me reassured the new me that they were definitely all safe, everything was fine, I was fine, and we should go back to sleep. I was glad she was there.
The woman I used to be, before the tumors and broken hearts and vulnerability of my maternal experience, is still around. She’s still the same in essentials, but she’s grown, of course, into this modern self I have now. They’re both me. I’m wholly me –the woman and the mother. I still don’t believe my children are the only reason I’m here; I haven’t changed my mind about that. I’m supposed to remember the other interests and relationships that fasten me to this beautiful, mysterious place and develop them so I don’t start needing my children more just when they have finally begun to need me less.
I am supposed to write and garden and bake and sing and return to camp whenever I can and stay close to the friends and sisters and brothers who will let me. And I will, because I am a person, a woman, a soul worth growing for its own sake.
Yet the soul I’ve grown is a mother’s soul, blooming most fully and miraculously on bathroom floors and hospital beds, in dark hallways and parking lots. The self I have worked so hard to preserve is first and most essentially a maternal self. There is a woman within the mother and a mother within the woman, nurturing each other, needing each other.