Thursday, January 5, 2017

What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in the light...

Sunlight is like a foreign tongue when you’re sitting in the parking lot of a mental hospital, trying to decide whether to check yourself in. It doesn’t warm or illuminate like it should. It seems invasive, discordant. Insanity is a closed system, an echo chamber where dysfunction and unreality ricochet off the walls like coins in a dryer, gaining velocity as those walls contract, the din eventually drowning out any external noise.

I didn’t look at my husband next to me but instead stared straight ahead, my gaze empty, trance-like, except for flashes of genuine bewilderment at the families playing in the park across the street. They were mysteriously immune to the reality, so stark and horrifying to me, that just beneath life’s surface yawned an inescapable void which every moment threatened to swallow the universe into oblivion. Sound dramatic? It was. But if felt real. And as far as mental hospitals go, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

What could have catalyzed this paralyzing existential crisis? In short, the “mommy wars”. It seems absurd to say it now. That phrase, which I don’t even like using, is tossed about glibly to refer to harsh inter-mom judgment on parenting issues. But undergirding the so-called ‘war’, as undergirds so much of human conflict, is both a perspective that says mistakes are absolutely irredeemable, and also a creeping anxiety that seeks absolute certainty, an algorithm that will produce a perfect child and eliminate risk. Wed the two and you get an unholy marriage of venomous condemnation of people who are “doing it wrong” according to your imagined algorithm, and simpering self-righteousness.

I once prided myself on “getting it right”. While pregnant for the first time, I identified the “type” of mother I wanted to be, the club I wanted desperately to join. And I did everything in accordance with that type, at first. My smugness inflated as I got everything “right”, in proportion with my pitying judgment of all those who were scarring their children for life by making different choices.

And then, I had to make a choice for my child that directly contradicted the dogma into which I’d so passionately and wholly bought. Suddenly, I was on the outside looking in, and I vividly felt the cruel sting of that judgment. With the measure I had once used, it was being measured to me, and it was crushing. Granted, it was largely in my head, and via articles I read while obsessively combing the internet, searching for a voice from “my side” that said this medically necessary choice was okay, but a couple of times it came directly from other mothers. And over a period of weeks the fear, anxiety and dissonance crescendoed until it brought us to that parking lot.

But mercifully, something broke there. The void still yawned but suddenly chinks in the darkness beckoned, their promise faint and susurrant but perceptible at the margins of my vision. My husband, as much as I love him, didn’t necessarily say anything magical. No angels trumpeted. Yet I have no doubt it was pure grace. And my appetite, which I hadn’t heard from in days, suddenly issued a very declarative order for powdered donettes. We sat in a donut shop and I licked my snow-tipped fingers and started to heal.

My experience was extreme, of course, its intensity atypical and influenced in part by other factors. But I know almost all of us mamas experience this anxiety, if, mercifully, to a lesser degree. As painful as this ordeal was, it was rife with precious lessons, the most pronounced of which was this: the story we believe in matters. It colors and pervades every dimension of us, every word that leaves our lips and our every action, and it can be balm or poison. And the belief that there is a formula for parenting, that such certainty exists, is toxic. Such a belief renders mistakes irredeemable and unforgivable. Such a belief suffocates its adherents and shames others. It is, as my dear friend Stephanie says, a graceless perspective.

If we live into any worldly philosophy or ideology or any story at all other than the Gospel - that the Creator of the universe desires mercy not sacrifice, that One died for all and therefore all died, that He loved us so much that he was willing to give up everything to win us back, that death does not have the final say and that this isn’t the end of the story - it makes us sick. I was given the ultimately merciful opportunity to fully live into the logical conclusion of the perspective I’d been embracing, a perspective that masqueraded as comforting surety. It was anything but. And I emerged reborn somehow, tender, fawn-legged and new - but with empathy and humility I couldn’t have gained any other way. To hell and back - there for the grace of God went I.


  1. Ashley, this is something I needed to read. Today. Thank you for having the courage to share!~Jesse Ann