Motherhood & Other Mysteries
Ordinarily, this essay would be for paid subscribers only — but since it’s a tough week, I thought it might be helpful to share with anyone who needed to read it. It was originally published on Medium, and then reposted on Patreon and Substack. I hope my Substack paid subscribers and Patreon patrons do not mind. I will make sure you get private perks, as promised.
I hope you are well, or as well as can be expected, and that you go easy on yourselves during a stressful holiday week. Your next issue of the SARATONIN weekly newsletter is a Thanksgiving survival guide, and it will be out soon. I’ll probably post some amateur baking photos and silly stress relief ideas for you (and for me) on my Instagram, if you’re into that sort of thing.
You’ve got to be careful with Greek mythology and other forms of journalism. In the past two years, I’ve listened to over a dozen audiobooks in this subgenre. At first I played them at night, wondering why I could never fall asleep afterwards. It took me a few months to accept that these are not soporific adult bedtime stories. Certain realities are best confronted in the light of day.
The myths that endure are the myths that are true. Such is the case with the mother-daughter tale of Demeter and Persephone, who is kidnapped by Hades to be his bride and co-ruler of the underworld. In agony, Demeter wanders the earth, refusing to let anything grow until her daughter is restored to her. After a trick by Hades to make Persephone eat six pomegranate seeds, Zeus commands the young queen to spend half the year with her mother, and half the year with her husband.
There are other details, depending whose version you read. For me, the story always holds multiple potential, contradictory truths:
1.) Everybody gets depressed during an extra-long winter.
2.) Grieving mothers will rain hell on people around them until they get answers.
3.) If you don’t keep close enough watch on your children, they may be taken from you.
4.) They may be taken anyway.
5.) If your parent keeps you too close and attempts to force an eternal codependence and pseudo-innocence upon you, you won’t see certain signs of horror until it is too late. It’s not your fault.
6.) When you are a girl, you are a moving target, regardless of how many street smarts may be instilled in you. It’s still not your fault.
7.) Men do terrible things. It is their fault. They will mostly go unpunished.
8.) Your kid may still end up preferring the company of their abusive partner — the one you despise with every ounce of your being — to you.
9.) Pomegranate seeds, while very tasty and rich in dietary fiber, can be a tool of deception.
10.) Parenthood is terrifying.
I have heard enough interpretations of this particular myth, from Homer to Ovid to Edith Hamilton to Stephen Fry to Robert Garland to Simon Lopez and beyond, to know that you can make of it what you wish. Your relationship to mothers and mothering may have a great deal to do with what you emphasize and what you downplay.
I don’t have biological children. I probably never will. The idea of being pregnant always frightened me, even when I was a child. Childbirth sounded like a violent horror story, even when recounted by my mother, a woman who loved being pregnant and has always adored newborn babies, Christmas mornings, and fresh produce from the local farmstand.
She particularly enjoys pomegranate seeds, and first showed me the fruit when I was quite small.
She makes ordinary things extraordinary. My favorite quality about her is her endless capacity for delight and wonder.
She split it open, and we contemplated the soft, fleshy interior with reverent awe.
“It looks like jewels,” she said. I still think about that every time I cut into a pomegranate.
My mother told me labor and delivery isn’t fun. “But it’s not awful,” she added. “Then at the end you’re so happy because you have a baby!” She was in her early twenties, married to her high school sweetheart, and had dreamt of being a mother since she got over a brief interest in becoming a nun. She was in labor for exactly 3.75 hours.
“I wanted to have kids young so I could grow up with them!” my mom said to me blithely. You can read a world into that statement, and if you have inferred that it represents much of why I felt that I had already helped raise a couple of unruly kids by the time I got to adulthood, you are correct.
My first three decades were riddled with panic attacks, suicidal ideation, depression, and agoraphobia. I believe it was partly because I was just so fucking tired. It is really hard to raise kids who are so much older than you, especially when you desperately want to make them happy, even when you know they love you and value your opinion on their marriage, finances, mental health, relationship with their parents, relationship with their siblings, personal mental health history and their romantic history. It’s just a lot to handle when you’re eight.
Part of me still thinks I should’ve tried harder. Maybe we would’ve all been happier.
But that absurd, irrational thought is from the youngest of the three kids I didn’t actually birth or raise, the one forever trapped inside my skull: the smaller me I carry. Sometimes she crashes about in there and makes a terrible noise, but that’s what children do.
Back to the physical realities of childbirth. As a child, I assumed everybody had a baby the way my mom had me: in a nice county hospital, affordable then even for a working-class couple barely at the beginning of their upward climb, with no drugs, while singing songs and bonding with one’s nurses as an anxious but loving husband fights a panic attack in the bathroom. No complications. Grandparents, friends and relatives thrilled to meet the new baby.
I have known for decades that my youthful impression was quite narrow. How ignorant I was of the dangers inherent in this process, especially in America, but most especially for Black mothers. Medical racism does not just kill; it causes long-last emotional and physical trauma.
As a kid, I thought every woman must be thrilled to find out she was pregnant, with one exception. But the adults in charge of church and catechism class said that even babies produced by rape were a gift from the one true God. I believed the adults, because I loved them. Besides, the Virgin Mary hadn’t consented to be made pregnant, and she seemed happy about it eventually. My mother’s mother had statues and icons of her. You could even have little medallions with pictures of her. This jewelry made miracles happen. Every baby was a miracle.
But even before I read more books, made more friends, learned more lessons, became a recovering Catholic (and a recovering alcoholic— in my personal experience, the two are not mutually exclusive) went to therapy, and became vastly more acquainted with the reality of birth in America, the reward of an infant did not seem to me to be adequate compensation for the risk. And if my loving, generous young mother’s highly pleasant recollection did not incite in me a desire to reproduce in this fashion, nothing I learned later ever did, either.
“I cried when I saw the staples in my belly,” my first baby-having friend told me. She then mentioned the hemorrhoids, and the catheter they had to insert so that she could pee. I think she had to wear it for days because of all the swelling. She still had another kid again, on purpose, a few years later! But this is a person who was already reading Stephen King cover-to-cover when we were ten. More importantly, she had always wanted to be a mother, and recognized all of this as fairly benign compared to what some people go through.
Then there was my friend whose uterus tried to escape out of her human body when she peed at the mall after having her first baby and then she also still had another baby on purpose a few years later what the fucking fuck. I did not know uterine prolapse was a thing until she told me and I screamed. Then I asked what the hell she did.
“I popped it back in, picked up the baby in her carrier, went to the car, called my OB-GYN, went to her office, and we dealt with it.”
I may be making up most of those details, as I blacked out after I popped it back in. Again, another friend who always spoke happily about becoming a mom one day. Another friend who puts all her reproductive healthcare experiences in the context of people who have it way worse.
My friends have great kids. But even people who have a first child who turns out to suck will go ahead and have a second one! Sometimes a third, or a fourth! Planned kids! Kids they want! Kids they love, even when the kids are assholes!
Considering my repulsion at the notion of a creature growing in my body — even in the thigh, where Zeus installed the fetal wine god Dionysus after the pregnant mortal Semele’s head exploded; or in the skull, as Zeus did with the war goddess Athena thanks to the brave nymph Metis — it is safe to say I wouldn’t have gone for it even in a world where nobody ever explained uterine prolapse to me in breathless detail.
I have been privy, too, to stories of loss and grief and fear, of post-partum depression, mania and psychosis. It is an honor to hold space for my friends’ sorrow even as I recognize that I am an outsider who can be sympathetic, but not empathetic, to their pain. Being a good friend sometimes requires one to just sit and listen, to make tea, to hold sacred someone’s confession of things they feel they can’t say to the mommies and daddies they know.
Just because I don’t want a thing doesn’t mean I can’t perceive and respect the agony of those who seek it and don’t get it. I’ve never tried to run an Olympic race, but tears fill my eyes when I see video of elite athletes who roll an ankle, bust a knee, or pass out on the track. How, then, could I feel no sorrow for friends who struggle to become parents? Or for friends who are parents forever, but who no longer have one or more of their own children here on the planet?
I should say specifically that these children, the ones who leave too soon, are not here in bodily form. Some of my friends say they still feel the presence of their babies’ spirits. I imagine others do not, which is a less popular thing to say aloud but which to my mind is just as valid and real an experience of something I cannot possibly comprehend.
My baby was inside me for eight to twelve weeks, or maybe a little more, and then it was not. I did not know it was there until it left, rather painfully. Zeus was in such agony from the migraine that turned out to be Athena that he asked his son (or stepson, depending who tells the story) Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, to crack his head open with a hammer. My miscarriage did not quite take me to that point, but I did lay on the dusty, pube-strewn floor of a New York City public restroom and sob openly, which is not entirely dissimilar. Later, I crawled on my hands and knees up three flights of carpeted stairs covered in dog fur.
My baby died before it was a baby. I just say “my baby” because until this very paragraph, I have not felt the urge to type “my fetus” or “the fetus” in this particular essay. This is not a peer-reviewed article in a medical journal, and I get to call it what I want, as is my right. You may disagree, as is your right. I was Catholic long enough to not be angry that somebody else will read this and think I’m a sinner. I swallowed the lies, too. You can choose to recover from the indoctrination, or not. It’s none of my business, as my pregnancy is none of yours, outside the bounds of this little moment we are sharing here, you and I, across space and time.
Pomegranate seeds pass, eventually, but lies are less fibrous. They sink to the bottom of one’s being, and they weigh one down forever unless one painfully, deliberately, and patiently expels them. I would extend this metaphor to discuss spiritual hemorrhoids, but I do not think I have quite the artistic prowess to pull that off.
I was young. I didn’t even know the fetus was anything at all, until it was gone. One of my friends had already experienced a pregnancy loss by that point, and she said it was like a twig snapping. I have said that over and over again since. It was that — small — and then it swiftly became the biggest physical pain I have ever felt. Hours later, it abated. I listened to a lullaby on a wind-up soft giraffe toy my mother bought for me when I was an infant. I still had it back then. Later, I gave it to a friend’s toddler. We all grow up eventually, except when we don’t.
I don’t know if it had a soul — the baby fetus creature, not the stuffed giraffe. That thing definitely had a soul. I actually wish I’d kept it.
Like a deus ex machina in a Sophoclean tragedy or an episode of a ’90s teen nighttime soap, a pregnancy loss prevented me from having to make the choice of bearing a child I did not want or having an abortion I did not want. Thanks, kid.
Longing is an ancient stadium in the human heart. I have known the crumbling cheap seats. I do not think anything can compare to the loss of a wanted pregnancy or a wanted baby. I can only say I know what it is to desire something — not a baby, but love, acceptance, happiness, peace, sanity — to ache in my bones for it, and to watch the hope of it disappear.
People who want to have kids will find a way to have kids. They know all the risks, and it’s worth it to them, as it was worth it to my mother, and my friends who went on the foster-to-adopt roller coaster and sometimes saw their dreams carried off by a judge or a social worker or a child’s biological relative. The risks needn’t be recited to my friends who felt or watched their children die and who tried again, and again, and again.
I think that some people are meant to be parents, just as some are meant to play the piano, or sculpt, or draw, or flip across rubber mats before throngs of spectators. I’m not talking about being champions at the thing, winning trophies or medals or being crowned with laurel wreaths. I’m just talking about doing the thing.
Some people are meant to do the thing. Some are not.
For many years, I assumed that my aversion to pregnancy, labor and delivery was not, in fact, an aversion to parenting. I could adopt children one day. But that was before I watched my peers actually raise the enchanting things that emerge from somebody’s human body.
To raise a child in a manner that is decent and kind — this is, I think, the hardest of all human endeavors.
Regardless of biological provenance, children require your love, attention, affection, discipline, money, patience, and more. Plus, they throw up on you, and not just when they’re infants.
Beyond all that, when you raise them, eventually, you have to let them out into the world. And then what?
Anybody can take them. Anybody can hurt them. Anybody can end them. You can protect them up to a point, but you cannot do it forever. You cannot save them from everything. You cannot even make them love you.
In church, the priest used to intone “let us proclaim the mysteries of faith” and I don’t know what the hell he was talking about, any more than I know what the hell happened during the Eleusinian Mysteries, annual initiations for the cult of Demeter and Persephone held in what is now suburban Athens. (Probably drugs and weird sex in masks, so it may as well have been San Francisco in the ’60s or maybe that same priest’s house last weekend.)
To me, parenthood is a sacred mystery. Like all things sacred, it fascinates and frightens me, even as it awakens in me a kind of strange yearning for a union with something greater than myself.
Perhaps, by reasons of nature or nurture, or by some unknown holy decree, I was meant to be an auntie, stepmom, or childless doting grandmother. These are important jobs! After all, someone’s got to watch the toddler while a parent takes five fucking minutes alone to scream into a pillow or take a shit in peace.
I have learned that I am good enough at this: just being there. Just sitting. Watching Sesame Street. Distracting a small person while a big person goes into another room to take a tough phone call, or to weep. Dashing after and retrieving a kid who is having a screaming meltdown, just so only a brief part of the explosion is captured on a parent’s 12-step, business, or therapy Zoom call. Trusting the kid will relax after they have the right kind of peaceful downtime. Not trying to rush the relaxation because it would make me personally feel better. Helping somebody prep for a parent/teacher conference or Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. Listening to somebody while they sit in the car for a few extra moments after the doctor, or the shrink, while they wait in line to pick up a kid they don’t actually want every hour of every day of every year.
I am not great, but I am good enough at helping. My own mother had some help, but I wish she’d had more. She deserved more. We all did.
I am writing on a heavy day, in a heavy week, in a heavy month, in America. It happens to be November in 2022, but it could be any time, couldn’t it? You are a mature adult but you are a frightened child and so am I and so are we and so is this country. Children can be vicious, too.
I am qualified to give zero parenting advice, and here it is anyway: go slow, especially at the holidays. Be gentle. Be kind to yourself. If you need a bit of help, ask for it. Keep asking until somebody comes through, even for five minutes. We all deserve respite. We all deserve rest. We are none of us gods, and thank God for that.
One more piece of advice: if you want to hypnotize an unruly kid, show them how to safely cut open a pomegranate. It looks like an entire world.