In the course of my 27-hour nonstop drive from Boston to Houston, two “ton” cities that have virtually nothing else in common, I heard a phrase in the audiobook I was binge-listening to that sent my mind into a sort of melancholy longing.
The protagonist had been spending the summer on the beach, studying and swimming and resting and thinking, all in relative solitude. This character had a lot of complex thoughts, new experiences to work through, heartbreaks to mourn. Sitting on the beach and letting her mind wander and muse brought her a kind of happiness that she implied was “what life is all about.”
My first thought was, “Isn’t that what life’s all about? To think, to form impressions of the world, to reflect on love and the pleasures of life, to sit in peace and just…be?”
For a moment I wondered if, right now in the thick of years one might call, “the opposite of solitude” years, I was missing out on a big part of what life has to offer.
The fact that I’d been in a car with my kid for a million hours in a row, and for the third time in a month, didn’t help my desire for solitude. But on a larger scale, I wondered if my lack of ‘mind space’–opportunities to sit with my thoughts and examine life and my future– was actually stunting my mental abilities in some way.
I love to think, and I’m rarely bored. Years ago I learned about a scale called “The Need for Cognition”, on which I measured very high. I can say that because the scale isn’t an indicator of intelligence; it simply measures how much one enjoys the act of thinking, not whether or not one is good at thinking.
Thinking requires some space, some solitude, and stay-at-home motherhood necessitates the lack thereof.
It’s the nature of a small child to require near-constant attention, affection, answers, and guidance. He begins literally as close to his mother as humanly possible, and at birth begins the slow process of separating from his mother. But to that mother who cherishes her alone time and the luxury of perusing her mind at her leisure, that process can often feel much too slow.
Does this mean all mothers and fathers who are deeply entwined in their children’s lives are not using their brains? That the primary caregivers of children are not advancing mentally? Are not thinking?
Immediately, the book Wild came to mind. It’s a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed, who, one day after a series of rock-bottom inducing events occurred in her life, decided to hike much of the Pacific Coast Trail. By herself. After four years of heroin addiction. With no training or warm-up, and nothing but a small guide book to inform her.
That’s 1,100 miles of walking, hefting a backpack the size of her body, confronting all kinds of extreme weather, with no one to help her navigate the lurking dangers of animals, terrain, or poorly rationed food.
She set out on the journey “to become the woman her mother always knew she was.” To get clean, to mourn the loss of her beloved mother, to reflect on her life and contemplate the turns she took to get her to such a low place.
But as it turned out, there was no time to think.
Her feet were not prepared for the hike. They bled from too-small boots which hadn’t been properly broken in, and her shoulders were perpetually on fire from the pack she could barely lift.
She was starving a lot of the time from the huge amount of energy she was expending combined with bad spacing of food pickups. She encountered deadly animals, one of her boots dropped off the side of a cliff, and thus, every single waking moment was spent adjusting to these challenges.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization comes dead last. There is no time for navel gazing when your feet are bleeding and you woke up covered in frogs.
And so, she just walked. She didn’t contemplate life or process her mother’s death or revel in her solitude. All day every day, she trudged forward.
Until finally, upon seeing the Bridge of the Gods, her final destination, she realized that a miracle had occurred on that trail.
She had reached peace. She had come to terms with herself, her life, and with the death of her mother. She had been sober for the first time in years, and she had survived. At the end of that 94 day, excruciating trek, she was a different person– without having spent a moment thinking about it.
With her feet on the ground, she achieved more than she ever could have with her head in the clouds.
At this point in my life, my feet are on the ground on days I want them there and days I don’t. I have almost no time to stop to reflect on happy memories or to muse about what I want for the future. Long gone are the days at the office where I worked behind a door for hours on one project, adjusting and flowing with the whims of my mind, or the summers nannying on a Hamptons beach with nothing to occupy me but the ocean and my iPod.
But these past three years–the years I bore my children and raised them through the height of their incessant physical needs, while supporting my husband in his law school education–have changed me. They have been both treacherous and transcendent, sometimes simultaneously.
I feel like the woman of just a few years ago was actually just a baby, yet to experience true joy because she had not known true pain. I’m certain my 40-year-old self will say the exact same thing about me.
I can’t remember the last time I was able to let my mind ‘run until it’s out of breath,’ to borrow a sentiment shared by a woman who, while lamenting the small spaces of city life, said with exasperation, “I just want my kids to be able to run ‘til they are out of breath!”
A city block doesn’t stretch far enough for a child to lose his breath, before he has to stop for a car or to maneuver around a crowd. But a kid doesn’t care; all that exists for him is the ground beneath his feet. He may have to stop for cars, but he will wear himself out in his full enjoyment of every step he takes until then.
My restless mind may not have had the chance to run exhaustively in recent memory. But while on that road trip, in the middle of the night on an empty Mississippi highway, I knew the sentiment from the book wasn’t true. Life wasn’t happening on the quiet beach inside my mind. It was happening right here in this car, as I rode with my family on our way to a new adventure, no end in sight to the exhaustion we all felt.
The quiet I desired, may always desire, the opportunity to be still for as long as I like… would have never brought me the contentment that five years in the trenches has.
In the five years since we set out on this path to Jon completing his J.D., life has included navigating a new marriage, three pregnancies and two children, the ending (or postponing, TBD) of my decade-long career, Jon’s study for, selection of, and completion of law school, eight moves (5 cross-country), one diagnosis of severe post-partum anxiety/depression, but also,
more depth and strength added to my testimony than ever before, and more connection and sparkling relationships than I could have ever dreamed.
My seemingly insatiable mind was opened, my walls let down, and challenges that felt insurmountable were met with hope because of loving bonds forged through shared experience.
In the moment, many of these things kept me from having any time to reflect upon them- the very challenges one likes to work out in one’s mind and heart. Motherhood, in particular, was something I wanted to dwell on, to savor, to get lost in, and to understand my place within.
But being the main caregiver for a child is more than changing diapers and feeding tiny mouths.
It’s discovering whether you have the capacity to spend innumerable consecutive hours with no thought of yourself.
It’s exercising the mental and emotional strength of holding it together in the presence of society’s most vulnerable, even when the world could be, and sometimes is, deteriorating around you.
It’s developing the capacity to gain a sense of accomplishment purely from within, as there are no accolades, no promotions, and no raises. It’s failing badly and bouncing back, sometimes to the highest highs, dozens of times a day.
It’s strategizing how to imbue on to another human being your values, uncover and celebrate their greatest gifts, and provide complete emotional and physical safety to them. It’s giving of your love constantly, well beyond what you thought you possessed.
It’s doing all that without ceasing to take care of the day-to-day tasks that seem to be the focus of those against this role, when they speak about its interchangeability, its ability to be outsourced because of its lack of exclusivity and skill, its oppressiveness.
Only those intimately acquainted with its requirements understand that the emotional and mental load of parenting goes far beyond pragmatic tasks, and serves instead to refine the load-bearer in ways unimaginable to the outside observer.
It’s for this reason that there is no time to ponder the status of such an assignment. No time to examine how things are going, or to revel in the success of one’s performance while watching the sunset from a chaise lounge.
Basically, it’s saying goodbye to even five little minutes to think about anything other than the next thing needing to be done, the next person needing to be loved.
However, once in awhile a moment does show up. It is tinted with fatigue but carries a brief, potent sense of satisfaction… and for me, the sense that one day, I’ll have a minute to think about these years on the trail. It will be, as it is now, as if I am looking up from my feet for the first time in years.
At the end of our time in Cambridge, I look up, and I look back to see The Bridge of the Gods. All of the bright and shiny moments that made life worth living during the dark times; all of the incredibly gracious, compassionate, and interesting souls who filled our lives with joy and perspective, standing out as the pillars holding it all up.
In the absence of unlimited mind space on which to run free, to contemplate the state of societies around the world, of political drama, of solutions to the extreme suffering that abounds, I’m taking a page from a child’s book. Despite the interruptions, I’m running when I can. Instead of anticipating having to slow down, I’ll revel in the joy of the steps under my feet.
That three minutes between when my head hits the pillow and sleep. There, I’ll contemplate, plan, and dream.
On one’s feet is where the growth happens, imperceptible in the moment, but glaringly obvious in the years ahead. Peace is not thought to life; it materializes only as we give less thought to ourselves and our place in the world, being content to walk the path unceasingly, carrying the joys and burdens of each other.
But once in a great while, the trail winds onto a secluded beach, just as the sun is setting, and there is a solitary chaise lounge calling my name. And for a time, it is perfectly fine to sit for awhile and just…. think.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.