My Maternal Instinct Has No Kill Switch

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My mother used to tell me that “they say once you have kids, your maternal instinct never goes away.” I suppose this could help to explain why a lot of mothers experience that Empty Nest Syndrome after their kids grow up and move away from home, or why many women mother their husbands. But then there’s the problem that anything starting with “they say” is usually reducible to nothing but a pop and cocky Old Wive’s Tale. So when my mother told me this (and especially because we are talking about my mother here), I pretty well dismissed it.

Over the years I wondered if I should have taken it more seriously, though. Since the abrupt appearance of children in my life, I have learned that this Old Wive’s Tale may actually (against my very rational and empirical judgment) be the truest thing there is about being a mother. About human relationships on the whole.

My wonder started slowly. At first, I just worried a lot. About a lot of things. Things I never would have worried about before were suddenly a natural thing for me to be concerned about – like whether or not it’s safe to let a child walk down to the mailbox on her own, or what kind of plastic the drinking cups I’m buying are made of.

Then the feelings started. Some things didn’t feel right. Or – on the flip side – sometimes it felt like there was no other way. Suddenly I would know if something was wrong, even when no one was home. Twenty minutes later everyone would come clamoring in the house complaining – someone fell, a bruise, a scrape, can I please apply seventy-five Minnie Mouse Bandaids to make it better?

Around the second or third time this happened, I began to accept the irreversible bond between children and their mother (the woman who cares for them); the bond that has little to do with blood relation and everything to do with the metaphysical and spiritual connection that absolutely no one and nothing but each other can break.

I’ve blogged recently that my ten year old was being required to have a try-out visit with her biological father. She used to see him infrequently even though he lived close by, every other weekend when it was at its most. Then he moved to Houston – suddenly expecting to have tons of vacations per year where she would be uprooted from our home and taken to stay with him and his wife. Eat three square meals of Taco Bell a day. Get eaten by scorpions. Shoot guns. And so on.

Quite obviously these were unrealistic expectations, especially given the history of the situation and the precocious and sensitive nature of my ten year old. Rapidly his behavior became harassing and obsessive, though. Suddenly I was a terrible person who forced him to move away, of his own free will; and I was robbing him the rights God bestowed on him because he had no idea how to properly function a rubber, lo those many years ago.

That was too far, wasn’t it?

Needless to say, it stressed us all out, and my little Pookie – with the most delicate and fragile heart – broke into a million pieces at the thought of having to communicate with him regularly, and be taken from her home to a place she did not wish to go. Thousands of dollars were socked into therapy to help her get through the try-out visit, and right at the moment when she started to get better – to forget about him and the fact that she had to take the trip – she had her required birthday Skype with him. As the Skype came to a close, he finished with “OK, see you in a month” and she fell apart all over again.

Now that month – the most difficult month – has passed. We are there, in Texas. In Houston, having arrived roughly four hours before we scheduled to have him come pick her up from the hotel room. He didn’t show up, though. He sent his wife. The interaction was awkward, and immediately sent up a red flag that after all this time he could not even be bothered to come pick up my delicate, little angel himself. Nonetheless, I packed up her things and walked them to the elevator, where I said goodbye, reminded her where her cellphone was and to take her allergy pills every day; and as the elevator door closed she shouted “Mommy!” only for the door to close and whisk them to the parking garage.

Since she shouted that single word – “Mommy!” – I have tried to ignore the feeling that something terrible is happening. Surely they cannot be that stupid and ignorant – he and his wife. They are neglectful, manipulative, emotionally abusive, unrealistic about parenting, unhealthy, and flagrantly stupid – but even the worst of the worst people can keep a child alive and in one piece for 10 days. Right? RIGHT?!

They say once you have kids, your maternal instinct never goes away. 

This thing – this instinct that there is something wrong – has no kill switch, and so each moment that passes I am paralyzed by these fears that continue to creep slowly over me like spiders over a fly stuck in a web, threatening to consume me. I cannot just shut them off: these feelings that there is something wrong and that I need to get to her, all-the-while feeling as though I cannot because I have no real excuse to other than a feeling that will not go away.

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Today, I Wave My Surrender Flag

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We all have these days. Days that are so insurmountably horrible that it’s all we can do to curl up in our pajamas, head buried under the covers – hoping and praying that tomorrow will be even the slightest bit better.

If only one thing goes right tomorrow, I may survive.

It’s really rough being a parent sometimes. Most times. Everyone thinks that after the baby stages, things get easier – the sleeping normalizes; the feeding is regular and doesn’t always result in projective spit up all over your nice, new cashmere sweater. Suddenly being a parent is as simple as walking down the street to get the mail. Right?

Please say that’s right.

Unless there are a series of land mines and snipers between you and your mail box, I would argue that there is nothing more wrong to assume. Parenting post-baby years is still a war zone. Some days, I would argue it gets even more difficult as time goes on. Or, perhaps, things stay equally as difficult, the challenges just change. Infant sleeping patterns are replaced with school dramas; projectile spitting up is suddenly found in the form of a child that cannot – no matter what you do, and how old they grow – stop wetting the bed at night.

As parents, it is our job to navigate these challenges, carefully. To pay attention to them and to do everything within our limited humanity to develop superpowers and avoid difficulties for our children, at all cost. Lest temporary problems become lifelong debilitations.

For years, now, I have known – in the deepest, darkest depths of my soul – just how challenging motherhood can be at times. Of course it is all worth it. Of course there is – nine times out of ten – more good than bad, as the drum of days continues to beat on. But I have known. I have felt it: the simultaneous beating of the struggles and the pain and the hardships.

But either as a result of internal feelings of inadequacy, or external pressures from society and others mothers who just seem to do it so well, we bury the feelings of the battle cry that motherhood is, in fact, a war zone in which only the most astute and resilient survive.

To say the last few months in our home have been difficult is an understatement. Each day has brought a new set of challenges, a new series of emotional hardships that I find myself more and more incapable of understanding. It started with a move – of my ten year old’s biological father, halfway across the country, and out of our daily lives. Without going into all of the complexities involved in her relationship with him, I will say that we rejoiced; but only after she rejoiced. Which she did, even more than I ever could have imagined she would. Life was going to be normal, finally. She wouldn’t have to sit at his house every other weekend anymore, miserable and crying and fed donuts and Twinkies; returned sick and depressed. She could do sports like other kids, and love my husband as the father she always wanted him to be. And never have to worry again that after a weekend of “visiting,” her biological father would suddenly decide to not return her to Mommy and Daddy.

Within a week of his exit, though, suddenly we were reminded (by him) that life would not really be normal. With his move came a new set of obligations, most notably: a ten day trip at springtime or Christmas time (depending on the year), and a whopping five weeks in the summer. My daughter’s separation anxiety from me grew to heights it had never been before; suddenly she was depressed and had days where she was all-but-functional.

From there, life began to fall apart.

Most days suddenly had the potential to include some form of stomachache, crying, pouting, distraction, hyperventilating, fighting, and insomnia – if even the thought of her upcoming trips cropped up in her precocious, ten year old mind. And up until now, I have been fairly successful in squashing these down before they got out of control. On some days, before they even had a chance to occur. Life really was going to be normal, even if it cost me everything. And every, waking minute of my time was spent trying to be a superhero with my own human limitations – a superhero whose one and only strength is to prevent all the bad from entering her heart.

Now that we are within four weeks of the first trip, though, the war zone is more toxic; the tension can be cut with a knife; and on today I was slapped with the unfortunate fact that I am not a superhero, I am only a mom. And a flawed one, at that. No matter what I do, some days it really is not enough.

It will never be enough.

Under the covers, my head buried – I am hoping and praying that tomorrow will be a little easier. That it will have a little less crying; less hyperventilating. That my newfound understanding that I am not a superhero, and that I cannot prevent all of the bad feelings from rushing through the floodgates of my ten year old daughter who wants nothing more than to be a normal kid.

Today, I wave my surrender flag after the guerrilla warfare of motherhood has beaten me down in ways I never – not in a million years – thought being a mother would do. Hopefully tomorrow just one thing goes right. And maybe it will be that my surrender and retreat gives us all the strength to make that happen.