The Freedom we Lost, the Life we Gained, Part I

This summer I watched two movies that both moved me deeply. They stroke a chord in me because they spoke of something that has become my topic over the eleven years of being a parent. The first movie I saw was „Tully“ which I will talk about in this post. The second was „Ladybird“ which I will discuss in a different post later on.

For those who haven’t seen „Tully“ yet, here is a short summary which won’t spoil the movie for you:

Marlo is a mother of two who is expecting her third child which was not planned. When the baby arrives she quickly feels exhausted by caring for and basically being alone with three children, her husband working full time and her second born having serious emotional control problems. Her financially very well-off brother suggests to hire a night-nanny so that Marlo can sleep. At first reluctant, Marlo decides to give it a try and this is when Tully appears. The two very different women develop a close friendship and in the end there’s a very cool twist to the story.

I found myself alone in a theater because I hadn’t been able to find a female friend to accompany me. Sometimes I feel like going out and I start calling the women who are possible companions for a girl’s night out and – believe me or not – I am never successful. Everybody is fully booked for the next three weekends, too exhausted, watching their children, looking forward to a cozy evening with their husband, working, etcetera. I don’t have a problem with sitting alone in a movie theater, I sometimes rather enjoy it for it gives me the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and not feeling obliged to make friendly conversations before or afterwards. However, it is striking that literally nobody, expecially not mothers, can go out nowadays without making an appointment, which – funny enough – is part of the problem I encountered to be the core of that movie.

While I was sitting in the darkness of that movie theater and watching Marlo, this witty, sarcastic and down to earth mother struggling with herself, her body, her family and this whole thing of being a mother, who is literally not capable of being something else in this life, her life, I thought: „Yes, that’s it! That’s what’s it’s like. It sucks – and you love every part of it. At least in retrospect.“ And then there comes Tully, the night-nanny who helps Marlo regain strength. She peeps around the door and you immediately fall in love with her. She is funny, wise, loving, caring, unconventional, she speaks her mind freely without hurting anyone and she knows exactly what a woman needs and feels after birth. She takes care of the baby and of the mother.  But she is also incredibly young, adventurous, beautiful, sexy and free! Thus, she is quite the opposite of what a (newly parted) mother feels like. It is wonderful to watch this young woman, but it also hurts big time because, in my way of seeing it, Tully is the woman I lost when I became a mother, and she is the woman I always strived to be: young AND wise, responsible AND free. That this is utterly impossible should be obvious to everyone. Wisdom comes for the price of youth, becoming the most important being in someone’s life comes for the price of freedom. It’s a trade-off.  But still, by watching this movie, I suddenly understood that over the years I had forgotten to cultivate something in my life that is an integral part of my personality, which is feeling free!

Babies and young children make us 24-7 carers, and that means – of course – the renouncement of a lot of personal freedom. I know of nothing else that is more fulfilling and rewarding than accompanying the development of a child. And because this is the way it is, some women, including me, tend to forget that there’s a life beside all those resposibilities; or they know but think they don’t care because inside their thought system the well-being of family is much more important than personal fulfillment. So they think, so I think sometimes. When I stepped out of the theatre I was a bit down because, having several years of caring ahead of me, I thought that by the time I would feel free again I would have lost my youth. I also got angry because I never pictured myself as a 24-7 carer for decades. I began to look for that Tully in me, that young, adventurous, and sexy woman and realised that I needed to be care-free to feel that envigorating energy again.

Being spontaneous is the first thing that is eradicated from one’s life when you are responsible for a child. And, I dare say, it is the one thing that mothers miss the most in our society when they become a parent. I carefully say mothers because it is them who carry and nurture their children with their bodies the first nine months and it mostly them who stay at home the first weeks or months after birth. Mother and child are one and that doesn’t stop just because they are parted physically after the child is out. It’s much like Tully says to Marlo: „You pretty much are the baby. Her cells will hang around in your bloodstream for years. Right now she’s very much an extension of you. I mean, you built her from the toes up.“ Over the months and years of motherhood during which I really became a mother it was exactly that: having that extra-ordinary bond to my children that overjoyed me – and scared me – and outraged me. I felt a tremendous love, I was overwhelmed by the huge responsibility, and I felt stuck like an animal in a cage, because just like an animal I was completely unaware of the abundant liberties I had had before I became encaged. I somehow believed I could pursue my life exactly like before with the little add-on of a „cuddly thing“ to love unconditionally. Whereas love and resposibility make me feel complete, proud, and stronger than I ever felt, it’s the limitation of my personal space that I feel indignated about even after all those years. There were times in my life when I thought: „Where am I? Has my self completely dispersed in being the engine and lubricant for this family?“ I never thought that being a mother was my vocation in this life, I always wanted everything: a family, a fulfilling job outside the house, analogous friends (not only on Facebook), a meaningful relationship. Over the years it dawned on me that „having it all“ was something I couldn’t get if I wanted to remain sane.

When I was young I sometimes thought I could do anything. I literally felt no restrictions, which is of course the way that girls should be raised. I was completely unaware of my priviledged life that, when I became a mother, I naively thought that a child was a multiplier of my happiness and that other than that nothing would change. How bitter is it to learn that in fact there are restrictions, that everything comes with a price, and that when you decide to go through one door at least two will close. Women in western societies today are freer than before, but it is still us who grow children inside of us. So, we have this bunch of opportunities and see them cut down once we’ve become mothers. Or, we become mothers and decide to pursue an outward life but need to admit that we spend less time with our children than we originally wanted. Naturally not every mother feels that living with children is a constant trade-off. How they do it, I don’t know. However, I always wanted to be more than a mother and a housewife and my answer to the missing concepts for parents in the workforce was to be perfect under any condition.

I feel mothers in the 21st century are under an immense pressure to be and have everything at the same time: perfect body, perfect house, perfect face, perfect career, perfect cooking skills, perfect educator, perfect friend, perfect lover, perfect wife. It’s impossible! These are two many roles for three lives and they contradict each other often. And if you try to live out only three of those qualities you run around with a bad conscience all the time because you can’t get it right neither way. Moreover, what we as responsible carers of our families do all the time is „doing something in order to“. Everything we do has an objective, a purpose, and that is either because the nature of the action is as such (e.g. telling your children a million times to wash their hands before they sit down to eat) or – what I consider a disease of our time – because we create an objective to everything we do. Nothing we do is simple joy, which should be the real purpose of our actions. Think about the expression „to spend quality time with one’s children“. It doesn’t suffice to simply play with the your children, run around, collect sticks, throw balls, or look at the clouds because it is fun to do those things. Time is spent and used efficiently to meet some future goal (e.g. the success of one’s offspring). Under this economic logic of optimising processes for the greatest possible return, living in a family becomes extremely stressful because caring, the very action that signifies a family, becomes a means which is fueled by fear whereas it should be an end powered by love.

Being resposible for the well-being of a child, in fact, often means worrying – but worrying tightens the heart and makes you unfree. In German there is a very technical word for the person who is the principal care-taker of a child, which is used in legal contexts, it’s called Sorgeberechtigter. Translated literally it means „person who has the right to worry“, whereas worrying „sorgen“ in German means two things: fearing for someone and taking care of someone. Thus, this one word covers the whole dimension of parenthood: having the right to lovingly care for a tiny being and help it grow and thrive, and at the same time being out of your mind for fear because your childs arrives home five minutes late. If you – like my pre-mother-me – thought unconditional love comes for free, you are wrong. Your right to love and be loved unconditionally comes with – to stay in that picture – the resposibility to worry.

What a lot of women try to do nowadays in my perception however is, that they can’t stop worrying or caring. They feel responsible and in charge of everything and everyone 24-7, 365 days of the year. Families and especially mothers invest so much money, energy, and brain capcity in child rearing that many feel completely exhausted and empty. They feel an immense pressure to do a good job on their children, to love them right, to support their academic, emotional, social, physical, and creative development, to give them the correct mix of nutrition, to make them happy and successful adults, and if things – I mean children – don’t work as planned, it’s mothers who feel guilty. Children are projects in these days and their success is what families work for.  Underlying all this is a radically increased fear to fail and a respectively increased pressure to be perfect. And if you hang around Facebook in your scarce free time, things tend to get worse as everyone seems to be happier and more beautiful than you. But families don’t work according to the economic logic of the more you invest the greater the outcome. The opposite isn’t true either, but what’s definitely true is that children need happy parents. Children immediately take center stage once they are there. It’s hard to not lose oneself out of focus. When Marlo’s husband realises the critical condition that she is heading to, he says: „If you want to run off or something, I get that, because I want to do that too sometimes, but I’m not gonna.“ Running off was something I fantasised about several times when I felt crowed out of my life by all those expectations and responsibilities, by all those people! Remembering what made me as a grown-up feel happy before I had kids was the first step out of this constant caring-worrying mode – and I needed to step out because I realised that I have to switch roles in order to survive this mad house of a family and become happy enough to be the best mother on earth.

What all people need in order to stay mentally and physically healthy are care-free zones and times, in which they can be who they want to be and not what is expected of them. Freedom doesn’t come for free, though. No one is going to walk up to an exhausted mother and tell her: „Here is your time off.“ Why? Because, no one notices her exhaustion; or they do, but they feel unable to help her because they are themselves so caught up in their overly full lives. Mothers need to understand that „having it all“ or „being perfect“ comes for the price of giving themselves up. Child rearing is not a job for one person alone, we need to start asking for help and we need to learn to let go. During a conversation, Marlo complains to Tully: „Children are like barnacles.“ and Tully answers: „Barnacles destroy ships, but they are harmless for whales. What are you, ship or whale?“  Even though a whale is not my preferred state of being, I say: rather whale than sunk ship. A whale is still free enough in the wide of the ocean with or without barnacles. Caring sucks up energy, refueling lies in letting go of those expectation that make us our own slaves.

This revelation came to me once when I had to be out of town for a couple of days and I had forgotten to tell my husband the schedules and itineraries for school mornings and hobby afternoons. When I realised this, it was already to late to call and instruct him – so, after getting really nervous I stopped and thought: „OK, if it doesn’t work out, what’s the harm, really? They might get to school a bit late, they might even have no second breakfast for school or it will consist of only sweet stuff, and they might miss one music practise. Will that have a lasting effect on their development? NO, OF COURSE NOT!“ When I called home in the evening, I was awe struck that he had managed everything perfectly without my instructions. On the one hand, that was quite hard for me because I had to admit to myself that I was less indispensable than I thought. On the other hand, it was a tremendous relief because I had learned that I didn’t have to be everybody’s manager all the time and under all conditions, and I saw that it is no catastrophe if things are handled differently than usual.

Responsibility is just one side of being grown-up. We all grew up to take care of ourselves. We should remember that more often and give the child in us some more of the space that it set out to explore when it left home. I hope more people – men and women – will start realising this, so I have a chance to spend a nice evening in company next time I feel adventurous.

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