Published on November 19th, 2019 | by Odeta Xheka2
In My Defense
Among the many things I find difficult to be gracious about is the fact that my parenting choices are subject to unsolicited interpretations from everyone and anyone, it seems, starting with my mother (before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s and stopped being able to carry a simple thought, let alone express opinions); but also my go-to butcher who takes a keen interest on the number of times I feed meat to my children, my social media followers who comment with abandon on how I should raise my children based on the pictures I post (granted, I post a bunch, but why even start a family if you can’t bask in the reflected glory of your children’s adorable antics), and the old lady next door who has taken it upon herself to play nana to my children dropping by unannounced with fragrant plates of home cooked food (delicious meatballs, old-fashioned pecan pie) and unsolicited advice (the irksome kind).
Granted, it is much easier to shrug off advice from her than it is to field hurtful criticism from people who are either long-term friends whose opinions I genuinely value or people who offer their snarky remarks under the guise of a well-meaning, friendly demeanor. Or if I happen to be married to them. Let the record show, I resent them equally. I am not a mother who perceives her motherhood as a docile and bland accommodation to societal norms. Here I am, on the brink of turning 40, raising two children, worrying about my very sick mother, trying to make art, trying to produce some good writing, allowing time to carve the first wrinkle on my forehead, teaching my children to be responsible citizens, sporadically networking, constantly worrying, reaching out to catch my husband’s hand, keeping house, keeping appearances, keeping it together all the while resenting how my choice to stay at home with my children, a simple, practical solution to our family’s needs, has taken center stage and has, supposedly, transformed me from the former independent, creative, opinionated woman into the current “good mom,” a title I am bestowed in exchange for years and years of silent compromising. Apparently, my life story seems to make sense to the world only if viewed through the prism of my motherhood—the rest of me, or what I feel is my whole being, gets relegated to unfulfilled potential.
The creator in me keeps a purposefully irregular schedule, craves solitude, must fade out of reach in order to work. The mother, the daughter, the wife doesn’t have a minute to herself. Appointments to be made (and kept), homework to be checked, checks to be written, writing assignments to be marked, cooking, cleaning, trips to the supermarket and the pharmacy, attending unreasonably long PTO meetings, braving equally frustrating subway rides, donating art to worthy organizations, volunteering time to worthy causes, volunteering my voice to nightly bedtime reading marathons. My head hurts from all this but this is also the kind of pain that holds the infinite potential to speak to what it means to be completely alive in a purposeful way. It is precisely this deeply ingrained awareness of my limitations that helps me manage my expectations in trying to be all things to all people, including myself. How else can I handle all my contradiction—selfless and powerful, mother and person, enraged feminist and gentle human, artist and non-artist—without risking to get lost?
As the years pile on, I have learned to dig through the banalities of my messy, hard, often lonely and occasionally amazing life and collect the shiny threads left behind each time I have let myself fall in love with abandon, catch the first glimpse of an idea not yet beaten down by my lingering doubts on the validity of the “mom angle,” seek the softness of a long embrace after a hard day, drink from a champagne flute while ignoring the unwashed dishes in the sink. These are the bright spots on the bland surface of the ordinary that bind my daily life together, a life that is, above all, a testament to the way I have chosen to balance family, parental responsibility and personal creativity.
My husband begs to differ. He would very much like for me to be the sort of mother who obsesses over a spotless house for the sake of the children, as he puts it, rather than my artist statement which ties my everyday experiences as a mother into larger truths. It looks like the chickens have finally come home to roost. Those same core differences that sprinkled our wedding day with a heady sense of exoticism and quirkiness have given rise to some serious mutual resentment when it comes to parenting our children. The differences in our personalities (he is the gregarious one, I’m the shy, serious one), our intellectual inclinations (he expresses his rumbling thoughts in a boisterous booming voice, my own voice is always stronger when I put pen to paper) and our daily habits (his borderline OCD, my lax attitude when it comes to chores) combined with the hard business of day-to-day living have taken away most of our once enviable ability to talk through everything. These days, I provide him with long winded arguments about creativity as essential to motherhood and he responds with blank stares and exasperated gasps. In vain, I remind him that by definition motherhood is an exercise in imagination and by scrutinizing motherhood’s thorns and roses through my writing I am simply giving myself permission to add layers of depth to my own experience of it. He worries about the possibility of my creative work clashing with the banal yet necessary grunt work of raising children. He worries that I am opening myself up to strangers’ judgement without a clear understanding of the perils involved in exposing one’s inner thoughts and feelings for the whole world to see. He worries I will, at some point, prioritize my “creative time” over my “mom time” thus changing the family dynamics and wreaking havoc on the well established rhythm of our life. He worries we will end up eating too many take out dinners, forget to RSVP to too many birthday party invitations, have little patience in dealing with tantrums and even less time for family cuddles (it’s a thing).
I disagree. I surely don’t think our children are any the worse if I feed them the occasional quick meal when busy cramming on my writing time once the muse (finally) has gotten hold of me. Also, there is nothing wrong with them munching on a handful of sunflower seeds, a family favorite as it happens, instead of their usual fruit platter while I am rushing to meet an editorial deadline. Not to mention how minuscule the time I have taken away from them creating my debuting picture book is compared to all the successive times my children have joined me workshopping the book from one hosting venue to the next. Similarly, they are not deprived of motherly attention when they keep me company in the art studio. It is at such moments, each of us individually lost in the process of setting our imagination ablaze in front of the canvas, that we place ourselves above routine mother-child dynamics and accept each other’s idiosyncrasies without concern or judgment.
I used to believe a mother’s first imperative should be to model living in her own purpose and joy. I still do. I for one refuse to feel guilty for wanting to take the time to give a voice to my ideas and sensibility while also busy caring for my children; for wanting to cultivate that place inside of me which holds all the secrets. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said we all have a public life, a private life, and a secret life. Of the third, he said, even God doesn’t know about that one. Through my creativity, I want to grant myself permission to allow all that lives inside me to blossom outwardly in search of kindred kinship without constantly worrying that someone is about to strike and make me feel less of a good mother for choosing to be a whole person.
When I create, I tap the most universal and complex emotions, I search for a way of seeing. As a mother, I polish and polish these emotions until they sparkle, able to reflect back to me a connected world in which motherhood breaks free from meaningless rituals and extends beyond unquestioned service to husband and children. At my most hopeful, I believe we, mothers, will finally let go of the thick veil that covers the complex nuances of motherhood. But more importantly we will decide to look in the mirror and see the person we are instead of the requisite selfless, blameless, self-sacrificing Mother. After all, there is not only one way to be a good mother, but all of us must choose to be good to ourselves.