Tuesdays are trash nights in my neighborhood. This week the Christmas trees are stacked high for mulch trucks; recyclables are bagged up, and discarded household items-- furniture, bathroom fixtures, books, framed posters and old appliances-- are piled up like flea market dumpsters. On one corner, an almost-new baby walker sticks up-- clean and unmarked, with its Elmos and Cookie Monsters, rattles and spinners... I couldn't help patting the muppets on their little plastic heads, and wondered how these young parents could have left them cruelly on a garbage-pile.
Okay, maybe it was never a preferred beloved plaything but a space-hogging despised gift from someone the family disliked. Maybe it caused a household accident and left a scar on their perfect son or daughter. It tugged painfully at my worn heartstrings, and reminded me that parenting, one of the commonalities in all our lives, comes in all varieties.
I just finished reading Savage Beauty, the biography of world-renowned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Few women writers of her era reached the kind of star-status she held for some time, entwined as it was with her femme-fatale/girlish image. One of three intelligent and complex sisters, she was raised by a mother who was multi-talented and a little narcissistic, and who will be remembered mostly for her illustrious offspring. She is a photograph-- a letter writer-- in the Edna St. Vincent Millay archive.
Recently I've read several statements by 20th-century women of achievement in the arts. Most all of them contend that motherhood holds little place in the trajectory of a serious and committed artist. Not one of the Millay sisters reproduced. Single parenthood is near-impossible. I suppose I am forced to concede that my career was pre-empted by parenthood... not that I have regrets or bitterness or even second thoughts. What I do know, most of all, was this 'skin' of sentimentality that descended on the day my son was born.
Pregnancy was fine-- I was tough, a veritable icon of feminism with my bass onstage and my leather boots and rock and roll attitude and huge stomach. I ignored audience comments and journalist's criticisms about exposing my unborn child to not just excessive noise and jumping around onstage, but the thick cigarette smoke that filled clubs and venues in the unhealthy 1980's. Then came birth... and somehow all those inborn natural hormonal instincts came in like high tide. All bets were off-- not only was I protective and 'attached' to the baby, but every single television ad, sappy movie, crying child in a supermarket aisle brought me to tears-- like some latent Pavlovian response.
The biological co-dependence of mothering is a function of nature. Animals require no instruction in caring for their young, but some of us humans seem to have lost our instincts. Child abuse, family dysfunction and issues are common; while marriage requires a license, childbearing does not. As I weathered the various storms of parenthood, I became more aware of the emotional challenges and less quick to criticize others. I have also realized that everyone has their own parenting 'style'. For some, it is compatible and peaceable; for others, the needs of children and parents are at odds. We the parents, one would think, have the burden of adapting or handling the dynamic... but in many families there are immaturities and resentments that disrupt the hierarchy.
While I took responsibility for many of my son's objections, I also know I empathized-- agonized, at times-- disciplined not quite enough, but tried. My heart was smitten. It was difficult at times to focus on my own life's work, so entwined I was with the equilibrium of this growing person. But most of all, I am accountable.
Every year I interview prospective freshman for my alma mater at this time. It fascinates me to see these kids becoming adults-- their dreams, their local accomplishments about to become maybe global. Maybe not. Many of them have parents who were role-models; many do not. I can remember myself on the brink of college-- my parents seemed to have little to do with my academic soul, although they claimed bragging rights when I achieved something that was traditionally impressive. Most of what was valuable to me was not so to them. Music? Poetry? Not a viable tradable commodity in their world. Were they responsible for my life? Not really. I have friends who were accountable-- who raised amazing humans. Some take credit for their child's achievement; they brag, boast. A few of them, tragically and irrationally lost children-- to complex emotional and mental labyrinths, addictions and fragile compositions that lured them to the darkest destination of all. I don't know how these people recover; they don't. But life goes on.
While I could never blame my child for anything-- excluding premature grey hairs and umpteen sleepless nights-- I find it most absurd that my adult friends have persisted, through middle and now older age, to hold their parents accountable for their own failures-- even when those failures manifest as a kind of success or creative output. I used to have a cartoon on my refrigerator of a girl at her desk, penning a letter home--'Dear Mom and Dad... thanks for the happy childhood; you have destroyed any possibility of my becoming a successful author.' Irony? Still, two or three friends of mine go on and on about their issues, despite the fact that fathers have been long defused by age, and narcissistic mothers have been reduced to nursing-home patients. Ironically, they have usually not become parents themselves; or they have become fallible parents--either overdoing what they lacked, or failing in some other way-- expecting....
There is always someone to blame; ask Donald Trump. But the most effective problem solvers are ourselves. We must let go-- on both ends. Isn't that what love is? We must do our best, and then withdraw, let things happen. Accept responsibility but also foster independence-- let the apples fall as they may, we of this culture that values 'eye-candy'... who watch the Kardashian babies becoming style icons before they can walk, who see our friends buying their children guitars, coaching games-- wanting so much for their kids to succeed maybe where they did not.
I have two friends with trans-gender kids. The bravery of these families is inspiring. I'm not sure how I would have managed this, being alone. But there are no guarantees in life. Despite our illusions, there is an awful lot of improv-- of unknown passages and discovery, accidents and wrong turns; there is no real GPS for the 'lost in the woods' thing. Parenting is a vague map... some walk, some ride, some fly and some crawl. Some spend most of their life retracing steps, regretting, analyzing... wasting energy. We are biological entities... but we have heart and soul. Lost dogs find their way home, despite odds. If only we loved one another the way we love our dogs....