Sunday, May 10, 2015

Middle-of-the-Night Mothering

            I'm on the desert planet Dune, and there is sand everywhere.  Everything is turning to sand, even my clothing. I can feel the gritty texture of my t-shirt as it becomes sand, and I know I have to get it off me.  I catapult out of bed and find myself standing in front of my bathroom vanity, holding my night-shirt in my hand. 

            Wait, what just happened?  I'm confused, the fever making it difficult to distinguish dream from reality.  I put my night-shirt on again and go back to bed, where I find myself again on the desert planet Dune.  Everything is turning to sand . . .

            After two or three repetitions of this sequence, when I keep waking up in my bathroom, having taken off my shirt in my feverish delirium, I finally go to my mother's bedroom, where she is sleeping.

            "Mummy?  I keep having bad dreams."

            I'm not sure what I expect, but within minutes she sets herself up to sleep in my bedroom, over my somewhat embarrassed protests.  She ignores my half-hearted attempt to shoo her back to her own room and settles down to sleep on the floor.  I lay back in my bed, feeling strangely comforted by her presence.  There are no more nightmares that night.

            I have other memories of middle-of-the-night mothering, although not all are so detailed.  I remember waking up in the middle of the night feeling alone and vulnerable.  I would go to my mother, and she was always able to make me feel better.  These are probably the most canonical mothering memories I have -- I'm frightened and needy, and she is utterly dependable, capable, and nurturing. 

            Asking for nurturance is a moment of vulnerability, when we expose our need for caring.  Having to do so in the middle of the night heightens the sense of vulnerability -- you are all alone in the dark and have to disturb someone's sleep to find comfort.  How parents respond can have a profound influence on our willingness to be open about our needs later in life.  It is all too easy for a parent to be impatient or shaming toward the child seeking care.  The parent may feel overwhelmed by the constant demands of caring for children.  Our society, too, has little tolerance for neediness, preferring rugged independence (an unrealistic ideal, to be sure), so parents may seek to "toughen up" the child through shame.  Shame and anger are poor teachers, though, as they don't eliminate our need for care, but make us unwilling to express that need openly and have it met appropriately.  Instead, we wish others would psychically intuit our needs and nurture us, becoming angry and depressed when this doesn't happen, berating ourselves for our neediness and furious at others for their inability to meet our needs. 

            As a young child, I had a periodic problem with bedwetting.  I remember waking up after having an accident, and going to my mother to let her know.  Surely she didn't relish cleaning the bed again, and wanted me to stop this night-time incontinence.  But if so, I never sensed it.  She never shamed me for these lapses, and she was always patient about dealing with them.  I felt a certain shame, to be sure, for what I knew was bad and childish behavior, but I never feared her reaction and I never doubted her willingness to care for me, even in these most shameful moments.  I am profoundly grateful for my mother's ability to provide care without ever making me feel ashamed of my need for that care.  I know that it is not always easy to offer that kind of acceptance and I know how vital it is. 

            Asking for nurturance is even harder as we grow up.  The sand nightmare, the result of a bout of tonsillitis, occurred when I was in that awkward transition from child to adolescent.  I wanted the mothering, but felt embarrassed by my need for it.  I'm glad my mother knew enough to ignore my feeble protests and was willing to stay with me.  She made it clear that it is ok to ask for care; there is nothing shameful about needing nurturance, at any age. 

            Certainly my mother was not the only one to nurture me.  I have been fortunate to have received love and care from my father, siblings, other relatives, friends, and romantic partners over the years, all of whom have helped me learn to give and receive nurturance.  But my mother's consistent patience and ready care stands out in my memory. 

            So to honor my mother's middle-of-the-night (and anytime-of-the-day) mothering, I give thanks for being able to ask for a hug when I need one. 

            I give thanks for being able to cry without feeling that it makes me weak. 

            I give thanks for being able to tell someone that I'm lonely and need a friend. 

            I give thanks for being able to express my fears and anxieties so that others can reassure and support me. 

            I give thanks for being able to ask for reassurance from my colleagues about my work. 

            I give thanks for being able to listen to others when they are in distress and want nurturance without judging them as lesser for their need. 

            I give thanks that I can comfort others with patience and affection. 

            I may have taken it for granted before now, but I am truly grateful for the ability to give and receive care, without which my life and my relationships would be significantly impoverished.

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. . . . To be alive is to be vulnerable. 

~ Madeleine L'Engle

My father and mother traveling in Europe with me and my brother (1968)


Eryq Ouithaqueue said...

Wonderful essay, Deborah. It's worth noting that your point about shame and anger being poor teachers is especially true for boys, whose occasional need for emotional support is generally met with more hostility and ridicule by relatives and society. This, I feel, is the origin of much of what is toxic in America's construction of "masculinity".

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Excellent point, Eryq. We need to have a more humane approach to raising boys, without ridicule or shame for their emotional needs. Thanks for reading and commenting!