Today's Mother Words essay has to deal with a mother who attends a therapy session to support a friend only to end up returning for herself.
Work In Progress - Christina Marie Speed
Three years ago, I never imagined myself as the type of person who would see a therapist. That fateful year, I found myself in a situation where I supported a close friend in therapy. Cool and in control, I thought I sailed through my days with ease in my role as stay-at-home mother and Navy wife. I thought Of course I can help! I am screwed on tight. But after that first session, a hunger grew to return: for myself.
In an effort to support my friend, I made the phone call, set the appointment, and helped fill out forms. I drove us to the office nearby. Classical music played in the background. A bay window covered by fabric honeycomb blinds allowed the overbearing desert sunlight to filter in, softening every surface. A fresh box of Kleenex lay to my right on a small table, and a small turtle-shaped footstool supported our feet. That day, I sat right next to, and offered my strength to my friend.
After the therapist gently questioned my friend, she turned to me and asked me to share a bit of myself, what I was doing here.
“Well, I'm here in a supporting role. As for me, I've been a Navy wife now for eight years. I have endured workups—months at a time away from home—one six-month deployment and one six-month training where my husband had to live in California to learn how to fly another jet. During that time, I stayed back in Virginia, pregnant, to raise our eighteen-month-old son. Currently, I stay at home with my sons. I teach music classes, take care of my home. I am president of the preschool PTA that I co-founded with a friend. And I support the choices of my friend. I am here today to provide comfort and help." In short, things in my life are perfect, I wanted to add. I gave a curt smile.
Moments later, while my friend spoke, my lip trembled. I averted my eyes to the floor. The lump in my throat gave way to tears and my hands shook. I grew incredulous of my body's uncontrollable reaction. The therapist looked at me, her eyes growing wide. I fumbled for the Kleenex. I wasn't there for me, after all. I am perfect. Right?
At the conclusion of that first appointment, the therapist recommended I return, solo. Unable to ignore my body's response during the session, I acquiesced. My offer of support to a friend morphed into a weekly calendar oriented around my therapy appointments.
Sessions with my therapist quenched a deep, developed thirst. Layer by insidious layer, I peeled back generations of strong maternal practices from hundreds of years back right up to my own nursery. This exercise revealed my perfectionism and it became the hotspot. Why was I a perfectionist? What drove me to the ends of it? And, my question to her, how had it possibly been expressed in my mothering?
I throw out the entire batch if one pan of cookies comes out without the pillowy-soft texture I expect. I created a rigid schedule when my sons were newborns. I plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner weekly, and we eat meals at about the same time every day of every week. I attempt to explain the unexplainable to my sons. I hassle waiters to accommodate ridiculous substitutions. I count the minutes my children watch television.
I strive for blameless mothering.
As I shared my life experiences in the safety of my therapist’s office, a resonating pattern rose to the surface of our conversations: I parroted a version motherhood I learned watching my own mother – and it did not feel right within me. She helped me see that, in my attempts at perfection, I kept my own definition of motherhood suspended out of reach. I had not created a motherhood of my own.
This led to my feeling out of control – the worst consequence for a perfectionist. I contemplated mental illness. I considered the power of suggestion. My therapist walked me through my memories and gave me validation for my experiences. She taught me that just as new milk pours forth in the moment of a child's birth, so can the definition of motherhood. She helped me to see I don't have to model those who came before.
I came into therapy in a round about way, yes, but I came out suggesting it to as many friends – mom or not — as will listen. My therapeutic experience has been a gift to my husband, our sons and me. In her office, my therapist helped me peel away my guard and free my motherhood. And because of this, I am raising my sons my way with my words and as a work in progress. Not in perfection.
Christina Marie Speed currently tests obscure recipes and delights in random urban walks to maintain her mental health. She co-edits the Literary Reflections Department at Literary Mama and has work at Vox Poetica, Moondance, and forthcoming in The View From Here. Christina lives with her husband and two sons in Brooklyn, New York. Website: www.christinamariespeed.com