A Going and a Return: On Becoming a Mother and ‘The Power of Myth’

January 26, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 1 11 min read


When I started teaching high school English, I was fresh out of a graduate program that made reading feel mostly political. While I once fell in love with the escape a good book provided, Deconstructionism and Post-Colonialism had turned reading into something I loved less. It was through a colleague that I discovered Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers, and then through Campbell that I felt a return to the inarticulable reasons I’d loved to read as a child.

What spoke to me about the Campbell interviews was the secular morality of his message. I was raised in a church-going family, but formal groups of any kind have always made me uneasy. Still, I believe in being a good person, in striving always to be kinder, gentler, more patient, more generous. I was lonely and scared I’d always be lonely, and embarrassed to encounter the worst sides of myself that this loneliness highlighted. Because Campbell’s ideas are rooted in mythology, I didn’t feel like I’d given in to reading self-help or inspirational literature, and yet I really did feel uplifted if not inspired by reading the transcript of the interviews. He analyzes mythology and theology to suggest that not only is the archetype of the hero universal in literature but in the world we inhabit. That we are everywhere surrounded by our individual hero’s journey inward — simply to be a better person — seemed almost like a roadmap to self-improvement.

When Moyers asks Campbell — with what I have to believe is wonderment manufactured for the dramatic purposes of the television interviews — if all heroes must be male, Campbell replies that of course women can be heroes, but that “[t]he male usually has the more conspicuous role, just because of the conditions of life. He’s out there in the world, and the woman is at home.”

I’m inclined to understand what he’s saying as an honoring of motherhood. But, even in this generous reading of Campbell, I cannot deny the problems with his narrow view of a woman’s role. While he doesn’t overtly refute the possibility or importance of women making heroic contributions to a more public sphere, he also never mentions women outside the context of marriage and family. And yet, if I once felt pride in the work I did teaching the next generation of students about literature and writing and compassion and decency as much as curricular flexibility would allow, why shouldn’t I also feel pride in the work I hope to do with my own daughter? Campbell’s entire worldview springs from the assumption that what makes the hero’s journey universal is the biological and spiritual imperative to give life to the next generation. Campbell sees womanhood, even more than manhood with its history of war and scholarship and theology, as inextricable from parenthood. Academically, I see a lot of problems with that line of thinking. But personally? Being a mom does feel like the most important thing I’ve ever done.

I felt more certain with each year I spent in the classroom trying my best to care for, guide, instruct other people’s children that what I really wanted was to be a mother myself. I was already 32 when Nick and I got married, and I had a profound and urgent sense that there was no time to waste. This feeling was so strong that sometimes I worried I was intuiting some danger coming my way.

Of course I worried. I was nervous about pregnancy itself. I wondered how my life would change, how my relationship with my husband would change so early in our marriage. I wasn’t sure what I would do about childcare or work.

During those Joseph Campbell years, my favorite poem was Stephen Dunn’s villanelle “Tangier.” I had the poem up in my classroom, and I’d look at it when I was deep into my third hour of grading papers, fantasizing about running away to a village in Nova Scotia where I would wear sweaters and drink coffee by a fire, and though I know only one person in all of Canada, it did not sound as lonely as teaching high school English in Connecticut. The poem opens with the lines: “There’s no salvation in elsewhere;/ forget the horizon, the seductive sky./ If nothing’s here, nothing’s there.” Tangier becomes a stand-in for any escape where one might leave the burden of the self behind. Dunn explains that there is no escape: “unless, of course, your motive’s secure;/ not therapy, but joy,/ salvation an idea left behind, elsewhere.”

If you’re motive’s secure — not therapy, but joy. I hoped mine was. When I was pregnant, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was neither a mother nor not a mother. Suspended in this liminal space, I felt lonely and scared and ashamed of feeling both of those things. I was profoundly grateful for an uneventful pregnancy, a loving husband, and financial security. I knew, on an intellectual level, not to take these things for granted. But I felt powerless to speak honestly about how afraid I was of labor. What if something happened to the baby? I couldn’t even say, to myself, what I meant by “something.”

Through all of the major transitions in my life, even when I’d gone to some Tangier, there I was. Now, with pregnancy, I’d gone somewhere and for the first time did not see myself there. That was the idea, wasn’t it? To leave the capital I behind. To find my life filled with so much more than myself. More than teaching and running and writing and cooking and laughing and friendship and all the things for which I’d gladly sacrifice. I have, obviously, brought with me my own imperfect air. But I sensed and now, on the other side of that liminal space, I see that I could not remain the person I had been.

When Campbell is explaining what he means by “the journey inward,” he emphasizes finding what’s already inside of you, tapping into the goodness, the magic, the bravery that you already possess — like Dorothy with her ruby slippers.  Not so much slaying one version of the self as finding a self that you’ve always been meant to be.

The word midwife means “with women.” That, as much as the promise of minimal intervention or a small group practice, lead me to my prenatal care. And, in the hours after having Thea, I felt profoundly grateful for the women — and they were all women — who’d been with me throughout the pregnancy, labor, and delivery. In college I remember learning some scientists believe humans evolved into a social species because it is nearly impossible for a woman or baby to survive childbirth alone. During labor I realized more viscerally what I had been afraid of. I was afraid I would die, or worse, that Thea would. And that all women — my mom, her mom, a woman who called in a rage about her son’s grade — had felt this too. Of becoming a mother, Campbell tells Moyers, “You have to be transformed from a maiden to a mother. That’s a big change, involving many dangers.” I’d considered myself an adult for a decade, but with Thea’s birth I was also someone new.

A few months into motherhood, I was talking to the mom of a girl on the track team I coach. “Sometimes,” I told her, “when I’m feeding Thea at night, I just start to cry, thinking about how much I realize my mom loves me.” She hugged me tight, and we watched her 18-year-old daughter win the 800-meter dash. I hadn’t said it for this reason, but when we hugged, I hoped that I might have made the gulf between mother and teenage daughter seem as fleeting as it has come to feel to me.

When people learn that I taught high school, they often sigh sympathetically. Even my last year teaching when I was frustrated with parents fighting about grades and administrators marching out an endless series of initiatives, it was never the students — not them personally, and not the angst, energy, humor, fear, or bravery that exemplify adolescence — that made me glad to leave the classroom. I loved those teenage students.

The nearest I can remember to feeling the claustrophobia of pregnancy is the liminal years of adolescence. I wanted my parents’ and teachers’ approval. I wanted to be a runner, a writer. I wanted to kiss someone. I was afraid to kiss someone. I wanted to not care what other people thought. I wanted other people to think I was a fast runner, a good writer, that I had kissed someone. One of my favorite things to do was rearrange my room so that it looked like what I imagined a studio apartment looked like — minus the kitchen.  I’d long wondered how I could travel to Tangier, deliberately clinging to my overweight baggage from yesteryear. But the physical intensity of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood made a break from the me I’d always been seem not merely possible but inevitable. While I felt in some ways like I’d spent the first decades of my life looking for such an escape, I also felt a kind of lonely fear once I saw that, at last, I was leaving maidenhood behind.

When Thea only weighed 10 pounds at her four-month appointment, our pediatrician sent us home with a little bottle of ready-made formula. I was embarrassed. My baby weighed at four months what some babies weigh at birth. How had I not let myself realize sooner that she was not just “petite,” but skinny? Hungry. When I tried to nurse Thea after the immunizations she received at the appointment, my milk would not let down. Reasonably, Nick kept asking, “Is anything coming out?” while Thea screamed. He tried to touch me, and I pushed him away. Embarrassed, mad, trapped, my body’s failures on display, I felt feral.

In the hallway when Thea was still crying, we saw Cathy, the practice’s lactation consultant who I’d met with in the weeks after Thea’s birth. She smiled a sorry-that-sweet-baby’s-fussing hello. I whispered, “We have to start supplementing,” and began to cry myself. Cathy hugged me and said, “You did great for her.” I am crying now writing this. Partly I’m crying at the memory of my shame and loneliness. At my lingering guilt. At Cathy’s kindness. At the realization that her kindness felt like absolution.

“Isn’t it funny that we have lactation consultants?” my college roommate asked me when I told her about Cathy. There was a time, no doubt, when mothers, sisters, neighbors might have helped a new mom figure out that her baby wasn’t latching on quite right, told her about the milk-producing powers of Fenugreek, advised her to drink as much water as she could between feedings. But I, like most contemporary women, did not have this kind of a tribe. What my baby needed was something that I alone could provide, and yet, because I could not do so, I could not pretend anymore that I would have been capable of sustaining life alone.

I find myself, as I now know many new parents do, feeling visceral repulsion and fear when I listen to the news. I feel torn. On the one hand, I feel a newly urgent desire to prevent the world from becoming a dangerous, hateful place, to do what little I can to make our town, our country, our Earth the kind of place I want Thea to inhabit. But I feel a stronger and contradictory instinct to turn fiercely inward — not to change the world, but to shelter Thea from it. After I inadvertently learned that ISIS members had decapitated a man and played soccer with his head in front of his family, I cowered from all news. I thought, quite consciously, that I’d rather be ignorant than feel the kind of fear I did when I read the paper. I couldn’t stop thinking about all this horror in the world in the context of breast milk, which I knew was self-absorbed and narrow-minded. What if I needed to keep Thea quiet while hiding from terrorists and because my milk supply was so poor, she refused to nurse quietly? What if another hurricane came and we lost power and access to clean water? How much ready-made formula was reasonable to keep on hand?

Until I bought my first carton of Similac, I’d calmed myself by imagining that Thea could quite literally live off of my body. That, contrary to what millennia of societal bonds and protections suggest, this transition to motherhood required no one but myself. I imagined that even if we ran out of food and water, she would be okay. I still think about this sometimes and imagine that in such an emergency, my body might amaze me with one of those miracles, like adoptive mothers who eventually lactate.

When we started giving Thea formula, the knowledge that I alone could not sustain my daughter gave me sympathy for what I’d previously considered irritating doomsday prepping. Feeding Thea began to seem like the most apt representation of motherhood itself: something essential, nourishing, demanding, private, yet, for me at least, shockingly impossible to do alone.

After September 11th, my parents packed duffle bags for each of us and created an emergency evacuation plan. When Nick and I were looking at houses, he ruled out an entire neighborhood because it only had one way in or out, and he worried we could be trapped in an emergency. I rolled my eyes. Threats of terrorism or catastrophic flood were political, environmental issues. Until I had Thea.

My mom told me that when I was an infant, I was sick with a bacterial blood infection that came on quickly, and terrifyingly left me non-responsive in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I stabilized and the doctor sent us home with strict instructions for my mom to call him when the office opened in the morning. Instead, in the morning, the doctor called her before hours with lab results. My mom reported that I was doing much better, but he told her to bring me in right away. Thinking aloud, my mom said, “Alright, sure, I’ll just take a quick shower, and we’ll be in.” He cut her off. “Do you have to take a shower?”

The whole way to the doctor, my mom replayed the conversation. A shower. The length of a shower might make a difference. When she told me this story, she said, “I thought to myself, ‘You are a grown up now.’”

I don’t mean, and I don’t think Campbell means, that the only way to become an adult — to follow one’s bliss, to escape the capital I, to slay the self that must be slayed in order to become who you were always meant to be — is to become a parent. But becoming a mother has meant all those things for me.

Anticipating fear of the unknown, Campbell assures his readers that “we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.” This self, the old self, was the self from whom motherhood finally allowed an escape. “Where we had thought to travel outward,” Campbell continues, “we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”

By the time Thea was six months old, the woman who was once my best friend had stopped returning my phone calls. That same summer, a woman at the grocery store saw me juggling formula at the self-checkout machine, holding a crying, hungry baby, and said simply, “I remember those days. You do what you gotta do.” I can’t remember if she offered to hold Thea or to pour her bottle, or if she just smiled in a way that let me know she thought I was doing a good job, even though Thea was about to drink formula. But these isolated kindnesses, restorative though they are in my belief that the world is a fundamentally good place, are not what I long understood community to be. When I feared losing the life, friends, and self I’d known, I tried to tell myself that this transition would be like moving away for college or starting a new job, and that I’d soon have a new community to soothe the ache for what I’d lost.

Being with all the world doesn’t mean what I thought it did — not what I thought when I first read Campbell, and not even when I first considered the journey inward in light of motherhood. For me, at least, I am both more alone and less alone than I could have imagined. My intense love for Thea has, in some ways, been isolating. Not just from the person I was, and the friends that person had, but even from some of the other moms I’ve met in an attempt to build a new community.

Reading the phrase now, though, it strikes me that Campbell might intend “with all the world,” in a less literal sense. It’s the non-judgmental woman at Stop & Shop and it’s the fellow runner who just ran the Olympic A standard six months after having her second baby. Cathy who hugged me and rocked Thea’s car seat and showed me how to open the single-use formula bottle while I cried. But it’s also deeper. It’s my mom, and her mom. And the pieces of all those ancestors who raised the women before them. It’s me, and it’s Thea. A going and a return.

lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children. For eight years, she taught high school English and is currently working on a collection of essays examining motherhood through literature. Some of these essays have appeared in N+1, The Rumpus, Ravishly, Electric Literature, and Carve. Amanda's shorter pieces about family and running can be found at Real Simple, Women's Running and ESPNW. Follow her on Twitter at @ap10k.

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