Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bedtime Stories

Aiden is afraid of the dark crevices of our apartment; he refuses to sleep next to the dresser with its threatening, murky underbelly. The three of us lay together as the boys fall asleep, Max quietly nursing, Aiden holding my hand, wriggling around, full of questions, mind restless, wondering about why people die, why people have bad behavior, why Anakin turned to the Dark Side. Sometimes I tell him bedtime stories to calm him and ease his fears, to distract him as he falls asleep, and to turn his thoughts towards hopeful things.

In the bedtimes stories I tell my sons at night, I create the world as it should be, as we want to make it, paving the way for he and I to make that world together in the light of the new day. I tell him stories of him having trouble and overcoming that trouble, of him being compassionate and heroic, of him saving the day, of rising after a fall, of winning competitions and hearts, of love and togetherness. These stories help him to understand the world as I see it, the utopia I imagine for him, the utopia I want for him, and the potential I see in him. This is how I understand parenting -- shaping the world for him, making it possible for him to become the kind of person I hope he will become. Giving him power to imagine all the possible paths and possibilities.

We all have our bedtime stories -- stories we tell ourselves about where our lives are going, about what we will become; stories which piece together the small bits and weave them into a larger tale of Redemption. These tales, like the ones I make for Aiden, subdue our fears and self-doubts as well as encourage our secret hopes.

If I have two particularly strong personality traits they are: optimism and a strong capability for denial. I have always had fantastic bedtime stories. The range has been narrowed now that I am older and have to accept that I will never be a famous artist, or Olympic gymnast, or save millions from certain death. Romance is out of the picture since I am already married. But I can work well with what I still have. Usually the uncertainty of life excites me, gives me more room to play and dream. In real life I am cautious but tend to do the things I set out to do.

But there was a time when my stories failed me, and I saw only the dark spaces and failures of my life -- the things I am usually so good at denying. Failure and depression left an empty space where the bedtime stories usually carried me forward, and it took me a long time to recover. I still have not come up with a new bedtime story, but I’m learning to live with small partial ones, and not to seek grand meanings in every gesture.

When I look around at myself and many of my mommy friends, I see the same dilemma over and over again: conflicted guilt about how to weigh the roles of parenthood and career. I suspect that my friend M, who works full time and leaves her child with a nanny, fights off the feeling that if you are successful but not incredibly successful, you’re being selfish to leave your kid with someone else so you can work. No matter what choice you make, you carry the guilt around with you like your child’s shadow twin.

So I had set myself up to do either the impossible or the ideal, depending on how I looked at it. I was a parent doing a PhD, so I essentially was a mom with a career but one I could try to fit around my child. My husband and I had agreed we didn’t want to farm Aiden out to someone else to be raised, that we wanted to raise him ourselves. We were juggling child care between ourselves -- him, struggling with his new business and commuting between Ann Arbor and San Francisco. Me, struggling with my doctoral work. Both of us suddenly without our old friendships and communities, feeling stretched too thin, irritable. But then we somehow made this work, and I found a groove as a mom and found a community of moms who supported me, and we were all happy and comfortable. So we decided to have another child. I have it all, I told myself. I can avoid the choice, because I can have it both ways.

This during the time that we decide to move to Korea. We both felt, I think, giddy at the possibility of taking charge our lives in that way. Had fantastic bedtime stories about becoming metropolitan, really interesting people, speaking all sorts of languages, having a gaggle of cool multilingual kids.

Things were falling apart but I was good at holding it outside my conscious mind. My school life was unraveling for various reasons -- changing climate in my program, my own lack of commitment, me and the program not suiting each other well. Having always been good at school and academia playing a large role in the way I saw myself I wasn’t ready to let go or to accept that we wouldn’t be able to work things out. I was cool with the idea of moving, and denied all the losses (of friends, of wonderful house, of open spaces) as long as I could.

I was pregnant again, and hiding it from my committee because I thought they would freak out. But then we lost the baby and we moved, and everything started to unravel. Three months later, still overwhelmed with the loss of baby, home, and the warm community which had nurtured me, I was tensely pregnant again, but without joy.

This pregnancy was different. Before, I had welcomed the babies into my heart and my bedtime stories before they were even conceived; this time I held back, watching from a distance, seeing if this one would make the cut. Unable to concentrate on my dissertation proposal, but also unable to deal with that, I began to descend into the shadows which until then I had always kept at bay. I lay awake at night, mind reverberating with FAILURE FAILURE FAILURE, thinking that in my thirty years on this planet I hadn’t done one good thing. I stopped brushing my teeth, shaving my legs, taking showers. I was terse and angry with Aiden. Months went by. My grandfather passed away. Now my whole day and night was wrapped up in the anxiety of living as a failure -- but I thought, in my warped way -- that telling anybody that I was enveloped by this anxiety would be another type of failure. I’m a tough cookie, I should be able to keep my chin up and handle this! So I kept it to myself.

Later, after a friend on the phone remarked, “you sound depressed,” I suddenly realized that in fact I was. I should have known, I should have recognized the signs, but I was so overwhelmed by the feeling of failure and trying to hide it from everyone else that I didn’t recognize that this wasn’t normal, it wasn’t “me.” With the birth of Max my mind cleared and I could see again. I could make decisions again. I decided to leave the doctoral program, to refocus my life, to take a different path. And that has made all the difference.

Armed with the label “partum depression” I could look back and follow the trajectory of the deviation between “normal me” and “depressed me.” But suddenly the ability to be me, to feel like myself, was a tenuous and special thing, and even months later, I carefully monitored myself each day to see if I “felt like myself.” It’s a funny thing, this fading grasp of “being me.”

Part of the problem with “being me” is that “being me” has always been tied to a certain trajectory -- becoming a professor, writing a book, whatever. But although the cloud had lifted and the weight of the PhD was off, I was missing a bedtime story, something to cushion and protect me during the transition from daytime reality to nighttime shadow. The mechanics of day to day living I knew how to do, but I needed something to guide my thinking about where I was heading. And I didn’t know. And I still don’t know.

The hardest thing about leaving the PhD was not, in the end, making the decision (which after all this time I still feel was the right decision, and one which left me feeling wonderfully free and liberated), but having to learn to fall asleep without the security blanket of a definable future. This was really the first time in my life that I had to deal with the notion of failure. But I found that failure is not such a scary monster after all. You can live with it under your bed and it won’t eat you up. You can even lean over and take a peek at it, make friends with it, invite it over for tea. It might just introduce you to its friends.

We are again poised on a precipice. We are planning to move to China in the next few years and need to make a decision about a Third. The thing I admire most, perhaps, about KC is his ability to pick a goal and stick with it -- to live without self-doubt and uncertainty. He knows what he wants and he goes out and gets it. I’m still waiting for the deity to descend from the heavens and tell me why I’m here. Should I try to write? Is this blog just a way of trying on a new skillset, a new future, like one would try on a pair of jeans? Or just a container for my fascination and anxiety?

There are so many ways to lose yourself -- chemically, geographically and culturally, and directionally (wow, I didn’t know that was a word but spellcheck doesn’t have a problem with it). In a way, being a stranger in a strange land provides a good background for this kind of anxiety about the meaning of one’s life: removed is the pressure to keep up with the Jones and being dislocated is like picking up a rock from the ground -- I turn it over and suddenly all sorts of creatures of strange colors and shapes are visible, living their lives in ways I never dreamed of.

Perhaps most importantly, in a place where I’m am still learning new, fascinating words, seeing new things, and meeting new people, my absorption in the day to day act of exploring has taken the pressure off of the urge to sum up and explain. Now, for Aiden and myself, I change the stories every day, and each one of them can be true and beautiful, and useful -- for the moment.

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