During the first year of my baby’s life I wrote a book called Feeling My Way: Finding Motherhood Without Losing Myself. How little I understood, then, about the nature of motherhood, and about the nature of life itself. A baby in my own right, I thought “life” was something you artfully arranged and vigilantly protected, instead of something, well, alive, that happened all around you, through you, despite you — not by your own design but by fiat of universal energies beyond your comprehension.
That’s not to say we can’t shape our lives, or ourselves, through intention and action, only that life was so much vaster than I realized, and my attempts at designing a life so ignorant of so much of life’s depth. I thought, before I became a mother, that life was a matter of doing, and now I know that it is a matter of being. The same is true for selfhood, and motherhood: They are about being in this world, not existing apart from the world and doing things as a proxy for living.
My daughter, Ali, is seven now. When a friend tells me she’s pregnant, I send her a copy of my book, but for a while now, it’s felt like a gesture that’s lacking, because there is so much I want to say that isn’t contained in its pages. I want to say: We talk about “motherhood” as though it’s a singular experience, when in fact, it is as different as the women who embody the role, and as the kids who give them the title. We also talk about “having kids” as if a kid is a predictable and universal entity, like a widget, as opposed to a wildly complex bundle of cells whose nature we cannot even begin to know ahead of time.
In my case, becoming a mother meant becoming the mother of a child with “special needs,” which I put in quotes because, as usual, the language of bureaucrats fails to adequately describe the truth it seeks to indicate. “All children have needs,” an assistant principal once told me, as we were discussing the challenges of meeting Ali’s need in that public school, and of course, she’s right. While we’re at it: All children also have “learning differences,” in that they learn in different ways, despite the one-size-fits-all education system we have in this country.
So, I’ll be specific: Ali has ADHD and a unique sensory profile (not quite a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder, but many of the same symptoms), as well as anxiety; she experiences all of this in a tiny body at the same time that her brain tries to reckon with what is about a hair away from a genius-level IQ. The collision between her struggles with executive functioning (what many would call self control, evidenced by a truly visceral need to touch and climb on things she is expressly told not to touch or climb on, for example); her intense need for certain sensory inputs and her equally intense aversion to others; her big emotions that erupt multiple times a day, accompanied by ear-piercing screams; and that brain of hers, always churning — well, this collision is indeed special, and it is my job to help to meet her needs.
The false sense of control I held coming into motherhood feels now like a fairytale. Life before Ali now feels like it was a facsimile of life. I was a game piece on a board, my existence gestural, rather than actual. How much of this is because of my child’s particular brain chemistry? How much is it because I was simply younger before I became a mom? How much of it was my extremely sheltered upbringing, or the relative peace and prosperity in our country during my teen and young adult years? I don’t know. I can’t point to the exact variable that shifted and made me realize the distance between me and life itself, but if I had to guess, I would say it was becoming Ali’s mother, a becoming that is still in process, a becoming that is wild and juicy and unyielding, magical and taxing, and above all else, unrelentingly real.
I look back at the young woman who thought, “Hm, perhaps I’d like to be a mom,” and I feel like she is my daughter, because the love I feel for her is maternal — accepting, with awareness of how much she has yet to discover.
Earlier this summer, when Ali was just a month or so into her seventh year, she started taking Prozac (just like mom!), and the results have been transformative. She is a happy little girl now. And of course, all along, she has been more than her neuropsychological profile. She is a radiant ball of creative energy who seems to run on art-making; her sculptures combine everything from empty raisin boxes and toy parts to sticks and golden thread. She’s funny — god, is she funny. She’s kind, and honest, and cares deeply about being a good person; she is a good person. And she’s smart — so smart — asking questions and making observations that deepen my own understanding of the world.
“Finding motherhood without losing myself”: Do you see, now, how absurd that very construction was? I could never lose myself in an experience that is a never-ending discovery. And I could never know myself, back when life felt easy.