My friend over at Writing My Way Sober had an interesting post about “fierce kindness.” She was writing about her mother:

Here’s what is going on: work and my mother and working with a lot of women who are a lot like my mother. My mom was mean to me, then I went to therapy, got really angry, but then my mom apologized. That’s my Mom. Unconscious, conscious. Narcissistic, attuned. I am glad she repaired things and I am lucky she repairs. Not all Moms do repair. But I wish she wouldn’t do the damage in the first place. 

G in August 1997. From my book about my pregnancy. Photo by my friend Charlee.

At this time of year, I remember in my body what it was to become a mother. I gave birth to my son around the 1997 autumn equinox. I walk out the kitchen door in these late-August evenings and there are few birds singing—almost no robins; robins are the voices of spring and summer; by autumn they’ve moved on to warmer places—but the chorus of crickets and cicadas reminds me of the days and nights I spent waiting for my son to move out of my body. I could hardly sleep during those nights because of the pain—my migraines had picked up again in the third trimester, and though I’d only gained 25 pounds, my belly put pressure on my back and sciatic nerves. I slept mostly on our sofa because the waterbed somehow stabbed me.

We live in the middle of the city but I’d wake up early to the sound of crickets and cicadas.

When he finally decided to move out, he took a long time in coming. I was in labor for 31 hours. My legs shook uncontrollably during my labor; my body wouldn’t dilate past 4.5cm for about 20 hours. I chose to have no epidural and I tried every “alternative” way of managing my fear—breathing; meditation; relaxation exercises—but nothing solved my problem except the three shots of an opioid painkiller administered by the midwife. These shots, I clearly remember, immediately stopped the trembling in my lower body. While that drug was active in my blood and mind, I could at least rest. I was about five minutes away from being admitted for C-section. With the third shot, I articulated some kind of half-baked desperate prayer (on the order of, “Help me”), and I dilated 5.5cm in half an hour. And after pushing for another two hours, I got to feel my son come through my body and into the world.

For the men who might be reading: Can you imagine what it’s like to have a seven-pound baby stuck halfway through your hipbones for 10 minutes, much less 24 hours?

I’ve had 14 years to think about how much I’m willing to sacrifice for my son and for my motherhood. My mother sacrificed everything. My friend Syd, who is married to a recovering alcoholic, asked on his blog yesterday:

What is to be gained by staying in a relationship with someone who you loathe? What is the point of being a hostile martyr?

My mother was a martyr, at many times hostile, at most other times fragile and brittle, like crystal that at a touch splinters into sharp spikes. Not as hostile as her own mother, who, after having been abused as a child of working-class immigrant parents and as the wife of a violent drunk, blossomed into a full-blown compulsive liar and pathological manipulator. My grandmother never apologized to anyone for any damage she caused (she was perhaps too narcissistic to comprehend that she’d ever caused damage to anyone—in the narrative of her life as she told it to herself, she always starred as the victim). My own mother certainly never apologized to me, except at the end of her life. Even then, she did not say the words, “I’m sorry.”

But you know what?—I’ve been taught that those words are the weakest to use in any amends attempt. My Al-Anon sponsor always says the best amends is a change in behavior. And my friend Sluggo taught me that the best thing to say when making amends is: “I was wrong. I know I hurt you.” I look back and can acknowledge that my mother came within a hairsbreadth of saying that. Close enough for me to accept her amends and to understand that I need to keep changing my behavior in my own family. With my own son.

My mother had a breakdown after I left for college. She leaned on me too heavily, and I let her. (Looking back, what else could I have done?—I was a kid.) I can’t put my kid in this position. I have to make sure I have a life that’s my own—not just outwardly, with friendships and work and play, but also an inward life that’s separate from my needs and responsibilities and hopes as a mother.

G’s son, by G. 2008. Wish I had more time to paint. So many ideas in mind: children’s books, YA novel, many paintings and drawings, so much other stuff. Try to remember I have the rest of my life to do all this.

He is a beautiful boy whom almost everyone says looks just like me. The people I know who are used to looking at faces and shapes (photographers, designers, artists) can also see my husband’s face in his, and not just by the dimple in his chin but by some of the bone-structure beneath. But his eyes are the deep brown of my own, possibly even darker than mine; his lips are full like mine, and he has high, wide cheekbones that come from my mother and from me.

What concerns me is that his temperament is so much like mine. I’d rather he took after his father, but the boy is super-sensitive, stubborn, quick with the rhetoric of resistance—backtalk, sass-mouth. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. I worry that he’ll continue to take after me. If you know what I mean.

His school doesn’t start for another week. I usually wake up early and get to work; when he comes into my study, I close the computer and put it down. And even though he’ll be 14 at the next equinox, he still likes physical contact with his parents. Especially, in the morning and evening, with me. He quite often crawls up against us, or sometimes on us. Which presents certain challenges and discomforts because he’s now almost as tall as I am.

“I shouldn’t cling to you so much,” he said with self-deprecation the other evening before bed. During the day, or with his friends, he makes an enormous show of ignoring me or putting me in my place.

So what do I do? Kick him out? Make him ashamed of his feelings? Hold onto him? These small moments make me conscious of the fact that I’m the child of generations of alcoholics and addicts.

I try to walk a balance…

“I think you’re like those robins who grew up on the porch last summer,” I said. “You’ll fly into the world, and then when you can’t find the worms you need or when your short wings get tired you’ll come back to the nest to rest.”

Self-portrait, August 2011.

Is this approach “fiercely kind”? I don’t know. He pushed his face down further between my ribs and the bed and snaked his arm around me. I work in the early mornings and late evenings, and I tried not to think of the work that was waiting for me underneath the lid of my computer. The compartmentalization of motherhood, the overwhelming feelings of love and frustration and not-knowing, it’s all sometimes exhausting.