“Why is your wife so intense?” asked my husband’s class of graduate students. He had just finished describing my response to their lecture request. I admit I had a strong reaction, but one I am still willing to defend. Students should learn how to confront material, formulate questions, and through discourse or writing come to meaning. (I have a favorite line from the movie State and Main: “Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.” Analogously, there’s no passivity in learning.) My husband reported my outrage (a hyperbolic way of stating my case, but it makes for a better story.) Their response is not an unfamiliar one. I often have strong, and I’m not proud to say, black-and-white responses to situations. Not that my responses don’t respect a gray area, but they do so in a decidedly adamant way.
Pregnancy and an 8-month old baby have noticeably tempered this tendency. Take my dietary habits: A vegetarian for 27 years, I now eat meat. I especially love steaks and hamburgers. I fed my son grass fed steaks just today for breakfast. This morning, as I considered my so-called intensity and this laissez-faire approach to my new diet, it occurred to me that they directly relate to my identity as female. The bodily entanglement required by motherhood* generates ‘femaleness’. We know a mother shares her body with someone else in pregnancy. We’ve heard about the fourth trimester. My selfhood is indeed moderated, quite literally by someone else’s. I am not me. Not entirely at any rate.
A friend recently remarked that it must be exhausting being a mother, constantly considering another’s needs. I am exhausted, but my relationship to my son’s needs is not one of active consideration any more than I consider what I’d like for dinner. I won’t draw the comparison between the consideration of my own respiration, or better yet, my heartbeat, because his needs are not quite so automatic, but they are firmly in the territory of sustenance, of biological imperatives. There is a diffusion of identity, of ego, that comes with sharing your body with someone else. Extending it into autonomous space inhabited by another will, another ego.
I’m sure there are plenty of examples of this physical extension. As I sat in a group Vipassana meditation session, I marveled that someone else’s sneeze, across the room, should send such waves of feeling through my body. It really is as simple as an adrenaline rush from being startled. But, regardless of how I describe it to myself, the bottom line is that I’m very affected by others, who are ostensibly outside of myself.
I continued this musing as I walked my four dogs this morning, baby strapped to my chest. I experienced the slow growing rage that accompanies these walks, the subtle sensory onslaught, the gauntlet of perils that besiege the springtime morning. So let my description to follow sound less like a rant and more like a meditative investigation of my bodily response to this routine.
It begins while trying to leave the apartment, gathering the coats, definitely the baby’s and sometimes all four dogs, depending on the season. A process no one is particularly keen on, making the challenge of lifting everyone’s spirits while completing tasks they’d rather not, all the more daunting. Coats, baby carrier, leashes, poop bags, house keys, and cell phone. I arrange this efficiently, minimizing the always looming risk of crankiness (canine and human). I also try to minimize the number of squats I do holding a twenty pound baby.
Next, it’s getting down the five flights of stairs and two doors (heavy doors that open towards me and threaten closing on dog tails and noses.) I watch my steps amidst a tangle of leashes. I cannot see ahead of me as I step out the door, not onto a landing, but down another short flight of steps, occupied by neighbors sitting, trying to enjoy their morning. Here I come, pack in hand, bursting towards the sidewalk propelled by four urgent bladders. The wild card: will a passing dog incite this already precarious circus act into complete chaotic lunging, barking, and frantic snapping, tethered ineffectively by deep breaths. I attempt to keep my balance and some charade of equanimity. If all of this goes as smoothly as possible, it is nonetheless accompanied with the kind of hypervigilance that knows, bodily, how tenuous any calm.
The rest of the two mile journey is about the same. A woman passes by, “You’ve got a lot going on,” she cleverly observes. I laugh to myself: “Man, I’m making it look easy.” (Although, thank you to the young woman who remarked to her friends, “that lady is the MVP – she’s got four dogs and a baby!”)
Our walk (in all manner of weather conditions) is punctuated by squatting to pick up dog feces in what I’ve learned is called a hell strip. Some people call this patch of terrain the road verge. However, as I squat (remember that twenty pound, squirming baby and picture my sweater now grazing the ground), the breeze-stoked gyre of dog feces, cigarette butts, chicken bones, grease stained paper, and fluttering plastic feels more like a hell strip to be honest. I’ll give you one more image; congestion, both human and canine, approaching from all directions as I maintain this delicate balancing act. I take refuge in oncoming traffic, letting others pass as I wait to resume our morning perambulation.
I try to metabolize the energetic shrapnel. The phrase “emotional contagion” running through my mind, lest my displeasure ruin my child’s chance’s for emotional self-regulation and become a text book “don’t” for Cesar the Dog Whisperer.
Here I am. Fully dispersed by 9 AM.
The demands on women are overwhelming. Be thin, but not too thin, cook, clean, nurture, be more aggressive, but not too aggressive. Women aren’t fairly compensated, they do more of the household chores. Maternity care and family leave are abysmal. The work of the so-called stay-at-home-mother is not calculated as part of GDP, and frankly, things are primarily valued in terms of productivity. This we already know. However, it’s the response , the counter-demands, that feel simultaneously oppressive and less achievable. We are called to love our bodies as they are, to care about health and not appearance, to embrace imperfection, and to generally act in consciousness of the double standards, the oppression. Reveal our too-fat and our too-thin, show our scars, our acne, share our #metoos, and declare #timesup. Any lack of self-acceptance, self-care, self-esteem, or self-advocacy is just another way we can fail. On top of it all, it has been proven that practicing gratitude is how mentally strong people lead healthier lives. If we fall from this high wire, it is surely through our selfishness and mental weakness.
As a palliative, there’s the endless babble about how to find, or more accurately, how to achieve (our character is hence invoked and our success or failure measures our very integrity) the ever-elusive ‘balance.’ Now, let me throw out a suggestion: balance is not desirable. We actually already have balance; we hate it. Balance is a state of perpetual tension. We actually want integration. We don’t want to be further fractured, further pulled in multiple directions that simply pull equally in all of the directions, like some sort of new age drawing and quartering. We want all of the parts to work together instead of at opposite ends of the horse-drawn rope. Even our zen is preposterous: Be here, now. Live in the present. Don’t forget to make the maximum contribution to your 401K, your IRA.
There is one final, perhaps ultimate demand: Forge an identity. If my identity is actually moderated by this fundamental dispersion, this inexorable confluence of mutually exclusive imperatives, identity is truly a Sisyphean joke.
Last Saturday, I sat in a group Vipassana meditation. Afterwards, there was a speaker, he said, “the path is not ‘be here now,’” but instead “the path is suffering, this [Vipassana] is a way out.” Finally, the resonance of truth.
Where does that leave me but to embrace my bodily reality for its implicit wisdom. Surely there is power in the invisible extension into space that has become the special place relegated to women, if not by nature then surely by nurture. It seems increasingly important to inhabit that space rather than retreat into a singular, if visible, entity. This grace seems the only appropriate ground for the future female.
*Femaleness does not require motherhood, nor does bodily entanglement require pregnancy. Consider the ever fascinating, and not relegated to female, field of epigenetics.