02 October 2013

The Personal Is (Still) Political

(Photo by Kevin Miller)
I want to stay in bed.

It feels like too much. The government shutdown and the debt ceiling showdown. Attacks on SNAP and ACA. Funerals of victims from the Westgate Mall in Kenya. The Canadian government muzzling scientists. The ongoing deaths of honeybees. The continuing gun debate after the mass shooting at the Navy Yards. And on and on and on.

When I was a child, my mother and her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad boyfriend would sometimes have screaming fights after my bedtime. I would wake to the crashing of things being broken. I huddled under the covers, terrified, paralyzed, eyes closed, wishing it would stop. On the worst nights, my mother would scoop me up, pajamas, comforter, and all, and bundle me into the back seat of her car to flee to my dad’s house. My mother and I would squeeze into my twin bed. The next morning, we returned to her house, and the clock would reset until the next time.

Decades have gone by, but it still comes: paralysis; hopelessness; the feeling that I can’t escape, I can’t make it change, I can’t make it stop. I want to stay in bed, but I’m a mother now. My family needs to be fed. My children need to be cared for. My household needs to keep going. They require money, effort, time, presence.

It comes particularly when I am sick, or stressed, or overwhelmed, or underslept. At least one of these conditions accompanies me every day of parenthood.

Parenting is hard for everyone. No less true for being oft-repeated: each child is unique, which makes advice by experts, family, and passersby of limited utility when raising your own child.

Most exhausting are the echoes of my own childhood that run in the background of my mind, the constant, constant, every-single-interaction fight I wage with my past whenever my kids are squirrelly, fussy, or just plain defiant. My goal is to be patient, to listen, to maintain firm limits while allowing my children to express their “big feelings.”

When I am tired or hungry (again, most of the time), I eventually start to lose the battle. My intellect gives way to patterns deeply etched in my psyche, patterns of yelling, of biting sarcasm, of calculated grown-up words to make a child feel small and ashamed to push against parental power. I am learning to bite my tongue and walk away, which only leads my daughter to run after me, hold my legs, cry, and otherwise completely exacerbate the situation I am trying to escape. I go to my bed and lock the door. Mama time out.

I want to be there for my children; but sometimes, I dread the emotional minefield.

It’s layers upon layers. Near the surface, stresses of adult life: finances, politics, family, sex, time pressures, obligations, balancing. Underlying these, trauma from my childhood dredged up as I relive it through my own children. I push back against ingrained habits carved into me before I knew childhood could be different. The mother-drive pressures me to make it better for my kids, I have to make it better for my kids.

I inherited a history of depression passed down generation to generation, a switch flipped in my genes for self-preservation, a legacy that means that any setback or barrier puts me in fight-or-flight. In clinical terms, I have anxiety and panic attacks. In non-clinical terms... I don’t know how to describe it. Like walls closing in. Like a personal raincloud. Like the apocalypse coming and everyone is going to be raptured except me.

I just want to stay in bed.

(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
I don’t write this to say poor me. I am hardly unique. I write this because none of us parent in a vacuum, because no day is a discreet moment in time. Every day is a convergence of the past—history, ancestry, echoes and reverberations. We try with every fiber to make the past clean for our children, a source of strength, not a weight holding them back. We look at them and see expanding possibilities. I want to lift my children up, not push them down.

Remember your diaper bag? Remember how light it was unwrapped at the baby shower? And then you put so many small objects in it. Diapers. A pacifier. Wipes. Changing pad. Extra clothes, each piece so tiny. A jacket. A blanket. Clothespins, to hold the blanket on the stroller. A bottle and extra formula, maybe. Or a nursing cover. Plastic bags to hold pooped-on clothing. Teething ring. Snacks. Water. Phone. And then, with the baby on one arm, the diaper bag on the other no longer felt light.

I feel this way now. Each piece by itself is not so weighty, but taken together, they burden me. What if we could lighten the load? What if I didn’t have to worry about affording enough child care? What if I knew I could get a job and still be available to pick up my kids after school, stay home with them when they are sick, go to parent-teacher conferences? What if I didn’t have to add fundraising for our schools to my to-do list? What if I could feel confident that we would have enough money to put our kids through college and retire? What if I didn’t have to worry that my husband or I might get seriously ill and drain our account on medical bills?

When I say universal child care, single-payer health care, a living wage, flexible work, paid family leave, accessible education, it all sounds so abstract. But when I live the worries, every day, it feels beyond real—it feels material.

I can’t escape my past. I can’t change how I grew up. I can’t stop the way memory and history trip me up on the path to being the kind of parent I wish to be. But with a little more support, maybe it would be easier to get up in the morning.


National Organization for Women
Moms Rising
National Partnership for Women and Families
National Center for Children in Poverty


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