“And if one would listen very carefully, he could hear the duck quacking inside the wolf; because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.” Terry Tempest Williams recalls the words of Richard Hale, narrating Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, in When Women Were Birds
I have been swallowed whole. I am in the belly of motherhood, and I am quacking. I am quacking and chirping and whistling and howling and my voice is here but it is inside the wolf. The sound echos and stretches. It is distorted. I have been swallowed whole, but I am still alive; I still have my voice, but I’m not sure that I recognize it.
Motherhood looks different from what it had looked like in my head. From a young age I knew that I wanted children, that I wanted to be a mother. There was a time in my life before I understood the complexities of becoming a mother, of choosing motherhood or it choosing you, the complexities of wanting something and not being able to have it, or not wanting it and having it thrust upon you. I felt certain my story would look much like a game of Barbies. My mother tells this story of a six or seven year old me, playing Barbies with a friend. She overhears me saying, “No, no, no, that’s not how it goes: First you go to college, then you get a job. Then you get married, and then you have babies.” And many would argue that this is not a bad way to go. But of course life is a bit more hairy than a well-orchestrated game of plastic dolls.
I grew up making my spending cash by babysitting, and by the time I was out of college I thought I had garnered some stronger, more in touch view of what it meant to be a mother, or a least what was involved in the act of mothering. I knew the tricks for getting kids tucked into bed and I had a knack for giving voices to the characters in read-aloud books. I was stealth at hide and seek, and loved a good arts & crafts project. I was a heck of a babysitting catch. And I thought that meant that I was well-prepared for mothering. After all, I had done the apprenticeship, and I had taken notes.
I am certain that most things in life can’t be learned about through books. They can’t even be understood by watching someone else do them, no matter how masterful a teacher. I am certain the only way to actually get good at something is to sink your hands deep into the mud and squish it through your fingers. Why is it such a surprise to me then that most times I feel woefully unprepared for this work of mothering?
Let me be clear: I chose this motherhood. But there is so much that I didn’t see coming. I didn’t know that I was giving myself up to the wolf. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be, couldn’t be just a duck anymore.
While we do make time for a game of hide and seek, and arts and crafts may be one of our family love languages, I didn’t understand that much of mothering is less fun than this. Mothering is not simply being a full-time babysitter. My favorite moments — the ones where we are a pile of bodies pressed together on the couch under the spell of a good story — are pieces of gold, sifted through the sieve, set apart form the the river silt of mundane work. There is drudgery, and work, and in that mothering is no different from any other part of life.
But, unlike other parts of life, motherhood isn’t just a part of my life. It is my life. It is constant, unrelenting, the wolf that is eating me, and it has become who I am. There is no me that is not a mother; there is no duck that is outside of the wolf.
Most of the things that I was good at, the things I had been copying and practicing and that I thought would prepare me, are not part of my job as a mother in this very house. I didn’t know that in choosing motherhood that I was also choosing to be in charge of All The Things (and I’m not talking about the bossy-big-sister things). All the appointments, all the groceries, all the school supplies, and the homework deadlines. Turns out maybe the best strategy to ready oneself for this piece of mothering is work as an office manager. This was not my day job, and for good reason. I make magic out of words and art, not spreadsheets and lists. So many times a day I wish that this were not true of me, that I could just get a little more organized and not be the one always making the last minute trip to Target for a birthday gift.
There is much of this mothering thing that fits me well, that has a tenor to it that is more in tune with my own voice. I have an acceptance, a tolerance and a graciousness in which I can hold all that is untidy about these little lives. I am growing in patience, daily, and my cooking is full of love. I don’t mind wearing stickers on my shirt, and we all know I play a mean game of hide and seek. In my best days, I can let my drudgery be made beautiful. The howl-quack of the wolf-duck is a song to hear, and I am the one to sing it.
The version of life that I wrote out for myself always included these things. But I didn’t count the cost. And while the rewards are beyond that which any amount of babysitting could prepare me for, there is nothing if not sacrifice on this road.
Mothering at it’s very core is soul care, and I have found little way to do this that isn’t all consuming. Tending another’s soul is perhaps the loftiest, weightiest of life’s concerns, and I don’t take it lightly. I gave myself willingly, eagerly to the wolf, swallowed whole rather than torn to shreds; still intact, still quacking.
I chose this Motherhood, and I choose it again, willingly, everyday. Motherhood has become who I am, but it is not all that I am.
Motherhood has swallowed a version of me. It swallowed me whole, and now there are two voices I hear, two voices that I hold. There is the voice inside the belly of that wolf that quacks to be heard, competing with the ravenous noises of the wolf. And there is this Mother-Wolf-Duck-Me that is more than a sum of its parts. I am the whole of the wolf and the duck, the whole of the me before bearing children and the me of mothering them. That’s the story that I write, the song that I sing.