Of all possible tasks, hiding bodies is my least favorite. As an adult, I have recurring nightmares in which I find myself in possession of dead bodies, and I have to hide or dispose of them without getting caught. Where these bodies come from I don’t know, as that’s never part of the dream. They’re already dead, and they’re very clearly my responsibility. When you have a body to hide, you’re plagued with this deep, nagging sense of guilt and agonizing isolation. You wish more than anything that there were someone you could trust with you secret, and at the same time, are terrified that someone might find out how horrible you are.
(Or at least, that’s how it is in my dreams.)
As a child, I had recurring nightmares about sitting in my mom’s car, waiting for her while she went inside to get something, and then the car would start moving with just me in it, and I had to figure out how to steer it without crashing. This was long before I knew how to operate a vehicle. I couldn’t stop the car, but I also clearly wasn’t qualified to be driving. I’d be barreling down the road, absolutely terrified. Never crashed, but was always obviously about to.
Being a mother is the closest real-life experience I’ve ever had to both of those dreams. That may sound bad, but not only is it true – it is an understatement. During many moments in my 11+ year career as Mother, I would have gladly taken on some bodies that needed hiding or a run-away car if that meant I could step out of the mama gig for a few minutes. So many times I wanted to say “uncle.” But in parenting, there’s no safe word. There’s no pause button. And there’s not even an opportunity to trade your kids for a dead body or an out-of-control vehicle. (At least I hope there’s not.)
It’s not that I find motherhood totally unbearable all the time. Not at all. I can honestly say that my greatest moments of joy have come from parenting. My heights of inspiration, of excitement, of peace, my most intense sensations of meaning and purpose and connection – all that has without a doubt come from being a mom. The resemblance to those dreams is not in degree of suffering but rather in type. The similarity is in the theme, which is: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Like a child alone in a run-away car, I feel like I’m in way over my head, in a situation I am simply not qualified to handle. There are lives – actual lives – in my hands every day. My hands. Me, who often wears mismatched socks (because where are all the socks?!) and me who can’t say “no” to missionaries who knock on my door asking if I have a minute to talk and me who still calls my mom when I have a question about taxes (or anything else). Me, who doesn’t always know what’s going on with this whole “life” thing. Who doesn’t always know why – or if – it’s all going to be okay.
And so often, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of mess and children (with mismatched socks and scraggly hair), and I’m always two steps behind where I should be. And I get so mad, I just want to scream at those kids (or worse) or stick them in front of the tv ’til next week or stick them on a train to Bolivia. And I really, truly feel like I can’t handle another minute of it and can’t possibly do it right and always like I’m destined to fail.
But not only am I failing – I’m failing at the only thing in the world I care about. And failing at something I can’t tell anyone about. Because it feels like I’m the only one. All the other moms appear to be wearing matching socks. And they don’t seem to be on the phone with their mothers. And they don’t have tears running down their cheeks. They do not look like they are about to completely freak out. So it must be damn critical that mothers keep it together, because either everyone else is doing it, or everyone else knows to hide the fact that they’re not. Either way, I figure I better play along.
I’m out of time and want to leave you with good news. Challenging, since I’ve basically just said that mothering is, for me, not unlike the manifestation of my worst nightmares. But I can also say, with total honesty, that mothering has been a dream come true, in the very best sense of that phrase. Because it makes me so, so incredibly happy.
(Also because I used to have these really fun dreams where I’d open my closet and find all the new clothes and accessories I could ever want. That one came true too. Only the clothes and accessories aren’t in the closet. They’re all over the floor and in laundry baskets waiting to be washed or put away and in my always-running washer and dryer. Close enough.)