Monday, December 22, 2008

Chaos Theory and getting out of the cultural blueprint for psychic death: by me and Ms. Gore

My dear friend Kelley, who had a baby girl on the exact same day as Eska was born, is in the exact same boat as I would be if I hadn't recently re-discovered the very noble art of resting. Yes, resting! I sit in my second-hand chair, enveloped in my favorite color, green, and I just BE. And guess what, not only is it totally ok, but the house and home did not collapse, not even close to it!

I threw out my back a few weeks ago and could NOT move. Barely. I could waddle to the bathroom if I grabbed onto tables and stuff. So, I just sat in my little chair and pulled up a sidetable with diapers, wipes, water, coffee, remotes, telephone, paper and pen, motrin, chapstick. I was beside myself with worry--what about homeschool? What about xmas obsessing/decorating/cooking/planning/mailing/crafting/baking/beautifying?...but it all had to wait. I thought it was all over, my days my schedules, my hideously stressful and rigorous routine that I thought I had to "do"---all would decimate in 12 hours, right? Not at all! It was an eye-opening day. The housework was handled that evening by me and my husband in way less time than I would have spent spinning about all wigged out all day. Me and the kids watched awesome shows on TV and Greta finally got to cook without me and my obsessive watching and lecturing about not spilling eggs on the floor.

How does this happen, this house-wife madness stuff? How can cool intelligent mamas succumb to the freaked out hyper micromanagement stuff that we might remember from our own moms, our own childhoods? It happens from just being locked indoors too long. (Because every spring, as we swing on great old swings, nothing under our feet besides new green grass, i am ALWAYS struck by the insanity of organizing bric-a-brac, obsessing over tiny stains, the imprisoning lists, sales ads, TV Guide....screw it! Its not right! Its all stupid!) and yet.....when you are locked inside with it all, IT ALL becomes your life, your world, and the weirder it gets to be trapped in that house, the tighter you keep the reigns, the more susceptible you will become, (Yes you, the intelligent cool woman) to the feminine mystique and all that fly lady stuff. It happens from being seperated from other mamas, seperated from ourselves, deprived of silence, deprived of sleep, deprived of nutritious food, depreived of rock and roll, deprived of travel, deprived of truth and reality and each other. We might remember our own childhoods in daycare centers or some "family" we saw on television, in the movies, or in the glossy ads, and we begin to sort of wander around our own homes, which we suppossed to be our sanctuaries, and start play acting out some role, some fake and weird thing, and we dont even know what the title of this play is, or why we are starring in it or why we are making our kids be in the cast and the whole f-ing thing becomes depersonalizing and freaky and then it just happens, BAM, you, the kick ass chick, is now walking around with a swiffer in your hand, actually seriously convinced you are conquering dust and....well, its psychic death.

It DOES suck to be in a messy house with messes everywhere. I am not suggesting slobbery or a complete cessation of basic routine or care. But if we cant get out, get away, get a perspective, right now, in the winter, we will all go mad, and drag our kids with us. For real. I have done it over and over. I have succumbed time and time again to the lure of thinking I was only one clever chart away from happiness, one good menu plan away from tranquility, one recipe, exercise video, homeschool product, popular blog entry, checkbook balance, golden flaky crust, color coded wash load, fruity facial scrub away from bliss. But that's all bullshit. You know it, I know it, but damn it is hard to crack out of it all. Without guilt. Without harming the children. Without filth.

I am hesitant to accidentally just start plagiarizing my favorite book of all time, but it is EXTREMELY important to me to share some of this stuff with you guys, and I have referred to it time and time again: The Mother Trip by Ariel Gore. It was on my sidetable when I sat there with my back thrown out. It is with me in the bathroom, it is always lost and yet always at hand and you HAVE to read it.

The excellent and incredible Ms. Gore reminds us of the chaos and reminds us that there ain't a damn thing we can do to stop it, life, Motherhood IS chaos. It is chaos and it is supposed to be, and just like birth, we really can only succumb to it to finally just let IT happen. Life. Motherhood. The only thing I can do now, and I hope dearly that I am not doing something illegal here, is to just share with you the beginning of this most excellent book. Please take care of yourselves, Mamas! Your lives depend on it.

From the preface of The Mother Trip, by Ariel Gore:

We have children because mothering is good for the soul. Having kids wont make us rich. it wont make our lives more tranquil. We do it because it's good for the soul. Simple, right? But motherhood is never simple. Because we don't just get new people to raise when we become Mama-women. no, with them come all the chaos of personal transformation and a wicked little cultural blueprint for soul-sacrifice and depression cleverly disguised as helpful advice and "whats best for the children".

American families have always been incredibly diverse. We all know that. We also know that Grandma Lulu was propped up on Valium and Grandma Millie worked three jobs. Its not the past we suddenly feel nostalgic for. Its more like an apple-pie-in-the-sky-perfect-mother-perfect-family fantasy thing that can-especially when were tired-be incredibly seductive. It tells us what our families should look like. It tells us who we should be and how we should act. it promises stability, eternal happiness, and laundry that's whiter than white.

The modern Mama fantasy includes layers of the 1980's supermom, the 1950's happy housewife, the early 20th century domestic scientist and the Victorian fountain of moral purity. Underneath that all there's the flickering memory of slavery, genocide, and some three hundred years of witch-hunts when we burned our midwives and our wise women at the stake and women's real lives became the stuff of secrets.

When we have kids, we cant help but catch a glimpse of that old knowledge buried underneath all our cultural fantasies. We see the personal transformation we've signed up for in it's full chaotic glory and too often, because we're also exhausted and hopelessly unsupported, we get scared. So, like our mothers and grandmothers before us, we back away from the soulful transformation and instead take the blueprint and start selling off pieces of our soul for those weird promises of stability.

To varying extents, we all do it. As the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, "Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth." But our flight into those empty promises is the reason mothers are the most depressed segment of the American population. There's no such thing as whiter than white. We all know that. and the alternative to chaos isn't stability- its psychic death.

My friend Wendy describes the Pacific as a vast ocean of mother's tears. "How sad!" I blurted out as we sat drinking lattes at Royal Coffee. But she shook her head: "Its not sad." Motherhood is not what we imagined. It is more delightful, more heartbreaking. it ruins everything. Its not the calm after the storm we have been led to expect. It is almost more than a person can bear. Almost.

...the word chaos brings up images of disorder, confusion and turmoil. But modern chaos theory doesn't claim that there's no order in the universe. No, chaos theory just reminds us that the order is intricate and changeable, that we might as well just give up trying to control and predict things. Its the scientific version of "do your best and forget the rest."

Only chaos theory can explain a dripping faucet, the branches of a tree, blood vessels, the beat of a human heart, my desk, or the nature of motherhood. Because it's change at work here. Chaos is reality. It's truth. So the next time anybody tries to sell you stability, make sure you don't get suckered into paying too dearly for it. Its a junk bond. Its whiter than white. Apple-pie-in-the-sky, big patriarchal lie.If that weren't bummer enough, its also more toxic than three big macs and a prozac shake. The more of it you eat, the sicker you'll feel.

Our intuition isn't always accessible. We need each other's support and helpful words. what we don't need is junk-food advice that tells us to ignore our feelings, that undermines our confidence and insults our intelligence. Its just a recipe for depression.Because what is intuition? Its a capacity of the spirit. Its knowledge.and what is depression? Its low spirits. Its knowledge withheld. but there is also a jumping-off point from this circular equation, a point where we can recognize our exhaustion for what it is, give ourselves a break, and in that quiet hour begin to transform the energy our culture has taught us to use to scrutinize and blame ourselves, and turn it outward, into something revolutionary.

-Ariel Gore, The Mother Trip, 2000.


Andrea said...

Thank you for this post. I just went on a cleaning bender, like deep cleaning the mini-blinds, vacuuming the stuffed animals, that sort of thing. With the husbands support and even help. We were going to do the whole house in a weekend. What got done was most of the upstairs. And I had to just accept. Because really, this was about me getting our acts together, getting completely organized, so I don't have to search for a pen or a sticky or the scissors. So I can feel like everything's settled, and I can start writing again.

But, small victories. Only half of the miniblinds are spotless. And the downstairs will have to wait. And it will all have to be okay. You're so right, about the cool chick who's now got a swiffer in hand. What happened to us? I think it is good, though, to clean out, organize, refresh, clear. I used to do it before I was married whenever I had a big project or paper due, or when I felt like my life or my head was muddled and stagnant. I could get on track if the studio apartment was in order. It's just exponentially more difficult to pull off now.

Here's a great book that deals with this: Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children. I recommend it.

Oh, and I feel your back pain, literally. I threw mine out a few months ago in the same way, where you can barely even get around. And like yours, my household held itself together without me.

Kelley said...

Joy, thank you. This IS just exactly what I needed. You saw that and gave me this wonderful post. Thank you. I will definitely be reading this book.

By the way, your background looks great. Good job!

Judit said...

Joy, I remember seeing the book in the bookstore and scoffing. Good thing you posted this. I never in a million years would have guessed it was anything more than fluff. Look at that cover! Just look at the lame subtitle. I dunno, maybe it was conceived at a board meeting at the publisher's. Hip mama? Isn't that a niche marketing catch phrase? Like for selling overpriced designer diaper bags? I guess I'm hopelessly un-hip.

We have a lot to learn from husbands I think. I mean, what I come home to when Peter's been watching the kids, it's just all so beautifully blissfully 'wrong'. The dishwasher that was started half full. Toys, unsorted, chucked into random bins. Toddler waddling in an ill-fitted cloth diaper. It used to boggle my mind, his lack of interest in domestic perfectionism. But low and behold, the kids don't mind. They are as oblivious as their dad. And life just goes on.

Ouch, how many times did I feel like I can't have people over because the house is too dirty for other 'real' people to see, when adult company was exactly what I needed most. Or I rushed in a panic to get desperate emergency cleaning done before a visitor arrived, like scrubbing a bathroom that my eventual guest then never even set a foot in?

Jill said...

I needed this post more than you know. I'm gonna have to get a hold of that book.

So glad to read you again, you are such a cool drink of water for me.

Housefairy said...

Awesome, you guys. I mean, I like to clean and tidy when it feels right. I like stuff organized as much as the next gal. But I am no longer going to be willing to go psychotic about it. it is so messed up. Mama is cleaning so watch out cuz she is going to be super super super mean and crabby? No more.

Id rather be a husband, just as Judit described, with messy chaostic happiness, children climbing all over me, laughter rather than dustlessness being our life's worth. Eating wheat thins on the floor, if need be. and there will be times when we are clean *and* happy. I would love that! But Im not gonna go to the loony bin over it anymore. Maybe just while I have a little nursling baby. Maybe just for the winter. Whatever. I am going to be happy and nice and cheerful and have fun.

Also, yes, HipMama seems so trite and annoying to us in 2008, but it was the name of a magazine, a 'Zine, I am ashamed to admit I have no idea if it is still being was made by Ariel Gore and there was a very active online community on, too. Lots of subculture types on there and lots of regular moms, too. Then Ariel Gore wrote a book called the hip mama survival guide, and it has lots of trinkets of wisdom but it wanders a bit, too. So this book I had to check out, cause she wrote it--well, it meant alot to me at the time (around 2002?)but not until baby#4 and #5 and lifes wilder curves have I gone back to it and WOW now it realy is a masterpiece of feminist literature, I am quite serious. Little chapters, some of them no more than essays, perfect for quick reads, sure to be the type that will have tons of corners folded down, if you do that sort of thing : )
Also, I think it would help others to see real houses with real dishes in the sink and real moms with milk and barf shirts and cheerios on the ground. (This is why we are all so obsessed with Realtiy shows, because we have no concept of how others live because we are all so seperated and were raised by daycares and never know what is normal or ok or whatnot so we peer at others who are faking anyways...)

Andrea, I am looking forward to reading Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children-- I am searching for Zen-Mama types of things to bolster this new path of mine. Its so curious to me why I did not need any bolsetring when I was 22 but now at 33 I am shaky as a leaf, scared to put down my swiffer, scared to just play and laugh on the floor.

Kelley, dear Kelley, I worried all night about hurting you or linking to you without permission. Thank you for getting what I was trying to say, and for the background link. It is taking over my writing space but I dont know if thats ok or not so for now it stays.

Glad to see you Jill! Thanks everyone for getting this post. this is not against decluttering or simplifying or even cleaning. It just has to be coming from a positive place and not an angry resentful self sacrificing media fueled angry one. ALL of my memeories of the children being genuinly happy involve great impulsive "messes".

hbacmama said...

Wish I'd read this last week.
Though, I live with a man who is an absolute freak about clean and organized. Never is there a weekend that he isn't upset and even angry at what 'needs to be put away'. He never takes the hint.
The kids are more important than a clean kitchen and toys in their proper spots.
He never gets it.
makes me sad.

Judit said...

"Mama is cleaning so watch out cuz she is going to be super super super mean and crabby" I had no idea that my childhood feelings about my mom's unending quest for cleanliness were still so raw. But when I read this, and instantly remembered, I started crying! Joy I have a troubled little history with housekeeping. Nothing abusive or traumatizing, just a slight touch of neurosis. Just that my blood cortisol levels are higher while cleaning house. So yeah, it's now also that I'm grumpy while cleaning. Resentful. Bleh. Not enjoying it, rushing through it, never feeling efficient enough.

I wonder how many parents create negative associations in children while teaching them how to clean house. Personally, it would be just deserts if one day 'picking up' became be the new toilet training. You know, that outdated parenting practice that enlightened moms approach with thoughtful circumspection lest we damage the poor fragile child's psyche. I'm only half joking. Last thing I want though is to encourage the parenting advice industries LOL

Jill said...

"Also, I think it would help others to see real houses with real dishes in the sink and real moms with milk and barf shirts and cheerios on the ground. "

YES! I love going to a mom's house and seeing that it looks NORMAL! It's such a relief and it's so much more relaxing than some spotless place where I am afraid to walk in with shoes on.

Andrea said...

I also feel refreshed when I see other people's messy homes. I have a hard time not breaking what my mother instilled in me, the cleaning before people come over thing (even if it was just the piano tuner or somebody). If I look at the positive, company is good motivation to get cleaning done, and it makes your guest's experience more pleasant. But man, it isn't the end of the world if there are dishes in the sink. The big pile of junk mail can stay where it sits. And cheerios on the floor are really rather homey, I think. Though our dogs keep the floors well swept of toddler jetsam.

We have a book called "The Bare Naked Book", it's from the late seventies or early eighties, and it's all about body parts. I love this book because the drawings are so realistic. Every picture that's an interior has the setting of a messy room. The bathrooms are all piled with clothes and toys and junk, and have overflowing wastebaskets. And there's a page about knees, that shows a family's knees from the POV of under the kitchen table. Oh, it's beautiful. Crumbs and toys and scraps of bread everywhere.

I grew up with neat freak parents. I fought it tooth and nail growing up, but now I can't help but see their housekeeping as the gold standard, even though I was well aware of how it ruined fun for me (art, for example, was always more trouble than it was worth). I have to check myself sometimes. Like, does it matter if the windows have greasy handprints on them? Enough to ruin my son's looking-out-the-window experience?

I also don't know how clean and tidy our house was when I was a toddler. How could it possibly be?

CNH said...

It truly is weird how our lives cycle together.

I got really sick a few weeks ago and was bedridden for awhile. I had people over to help some and my husband has been off but the whole fake "CHRISTMAS!!!!" thing had to hit the dust this year. Instead, we just relaxed together! Mama wore out every night around 7 or so and went to bed when the kiddies did. Gabe said "we didn't get the ANGEL on the tree!!!!" and I kinda went "huh, so we didn't. well, santa still came so it's all good". And my little MiniMe psychotic anal baby boy chilled just a little.

I consider that a parenting win. ;)

Peggy said...

I too thank you for this post. I am too conservative to ever pick up and read a book by a Gore on my own. I know what you mean about your world shrinking in on you and getting weird. I am barely leaving the apartment at all this winter--and I only have one child!

It is SO easy to get caught up in a cycle of Trying Harder and Harder and Harder to fix everything and get the external and internal critics off your back. Or, when that gets too exhausting, of chucking it all and Giving Up for a while. But you are right, Rest (and a more sustainable level of action) is what we really need. [The Give up/Try harder/Rest idea is from a book, Tried of Trying to Measure Up, by Jeff Van Vonderen, a Christian author.]

I don't watch TV or read magazines much anymore, so now when I do the people in the shows and ads and articles kind of freak me out--they seem so shallow and plastic. Fake human Pod People or something.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. As a women who doesn't ahve kids..thankyou for convincing (reminding?) me to live deliberately. The reason I don't have children is (mostly) because I am living in a way I would not want to teach them to live. Time to change that. Agian.

This fits in with chaos theory...but it occurs to this atheist that what Mrs Gore is calling Chaos theory others would call God.