Emily Arnason Casey
Often, I have found the term “gaslighting” in reference to women’s experience of the world helpful.
Sorrow Is a Mother
I stand in the lake, ankle-deep, looking up at the trees. My two children grab hold of my thighs and pull at my swimsuit. Morning time. Words come out of the sky: from clouds, from the wind, from the new green of spring, from the awful dirt-sand of the beach where the children will not let me alone. Color is like sound this time of day. Words unfurl from the spring green fish of trees, hook and stitch at the crux of my body and last night’s moon still hovering there in the shadows.
As a mother, it is not good to complain or to brag unless you find another mother who is willing to be honest with you. She will offer her woes and cry into a cup of tea with you as the children ram furniture like beasts, pull down the curtains, pour liquids into the cracks of the sofa and your shoes. There are public rules of presentation for mothers: you must be firm but not too stern, your children should behave but speak up, they should say hello to strangers but not the strange ones. Never yell at your child in public, although you may scream if imminent danger presents itself. Children should be clean but allowed to get dirty and muddy because, you know, it’s good for them. They should never hit or call names or not share, they should never throw stones or sand or sticks or water, and they should offer toys to other children even random ones on the beach. They should never ever climb up the slide.
Careful, careful, careful, we call to our children when others are looking. But what does careful mean to a child? A sound sputtered while she exerts and exudes herself on the monkey bars, dah dah, like keys played or chords plucked or the song of a bird heard from the nursery window. Careful, I say, because then when he falls I will feel less negligent though falling is a normal part of childhood and something I do not discourage, in theory.
Is it only safe to speak about the children to my husband or our mothers or these other women confidantes? I can’t be certain what I should and should not tell. It is the same with feminism, I sometimes think. “I am not a good feminist,” women whisper.
I always thought I would have daughters. I never dreamed of two sons. I wanted to teach a daughter about feminism and womanhood, to teach her to shoulder the weight of the world, the sorrow etched into her body, even at birth. I suppose I may have asked too much of a daughter. May have demanded her allegiance and refused to lead by example, as I am apt to do. Now, in the day’s ripe morning, I ask myself this question: What is the feminism of motherhood?
As a young woman, when I first learned the concept of feminism, I wielded it like a blunt club in my hand, a thing to wallop over the heads of men and ignorant women, the kind that announced blithely how their best friends were men and they couldn’t stand “bitchy women.” How I loathed such women; yet, how well I knew them because I too saw that certain men could be easily manipulated. Acutely attuned to the force of misogyny, the way my body was broken down into parts, the way I was taught silence and loyalty and self-betrayal simply by virtue of my birth, why wouldn’t I wield what little power I could? How could I have known the price?
Yet I grew up surrounded by strong women and felt safest among these women with whom I could talk openly to about my ideas, fears, hopes, and dreams. I sometimes tried out these ideas on men, alone with them in the pine forests of my youth. Parked in pickups or rusty sedans, drinking cases of beer or dark bottles of rum and whiskey, smoking cigarettes and looking up at the bows of these majestic trees, I’d explain why I felt cheated. I’d explain the dreams I had of change, of justice. Mostly they felt obligated to argue but some were silent and others kissed me.
Men appeared grotesque to me at times—their bodily functions lauded and pleasured. Though, of course, I had been taught as a woman to erase and disguise the so-called coarseness of the flesh—to shave off, paint over, dye, cut, and starve away.
In high school my friends and I drank vodka in the middle of the day and ran naked into the water at a boy friend’s cabin as a way to escape from the order of things, and boredom. We thought we’d quickly slip beneath the surface. But it was shallow for yards and yards and finally we collapsed into the knee-deep water in a fit of laughter. Back then there was nothing I loved more than the first fire of booze streaming through me.
Now my feminism slips through my fingers, a scalpel to be used with care, to cut apart mostly my own flesh, to cut open the old wounds and re-stitch them to fit the softening of my limbs, to give order and meaning to what was once a rush of pain, a flume of shame. But of course, it is hard to unlearn anything so deeply traced, so perfectly entrenched.
I am teaching myself not to want, though for years I have been obsessed with the subject of longing. My children are a project in longing, a relinquishing of love’s subject into the great world beyond this simple frame.
I only post pictures of my children on social media – occasionally the woods, the lake, something of home. But my children, by far, have become my favored subject. I tell myself it is so that my family, who live far away from me, can see them, but in truth I am enamored with my two sons. Is it arrogance, as they are of me, from me, young enough to not yet feel wholly a force of their own? I see so clearly their beauty like the changing of seasons. I feel threaded to their moods as though their anger tugs at me, invisible fishing wire between two deeply caught hooks. I want to capture something of their souls that needs the land around their body—in that square frame—to speak to the otherworldliness of small children. Or perhaps I need evidence of my sacrifices.
Sometimes poetry, but mostly longing rises from this compulsion towards my children. Poetry is perhaps of the same vein, the same pulse and beat, an extension of what it feels like to be a body in the world, listening.
Today, four-year-old Moses wisely navigates my grumpy mood: avoiding, shifting focus, obsequious, and hushed. My toddler Willem is wild in a way I can’t tame and don’t want to, as he is my second and last baby. He screams and romps, he yells, “No!” and “Roar!” He is a dinosaur and an elf and Little Critter. Today my inadequacy bleeds. I long for elsewhere. I long for silence but also to hold them close, press their cheeks into mine and breathe their orphic scents.
Looking at trees, I think of the way the world is not experienced through words but something else—some concoction of emotion, memory, and touch. The wind in my hair in late spring becomes my girlhood, my first love — a little blue paddleboat, fishing rods and a plastic pouch of sunflower seeds between my tanned legs. The smell of my child’s head, before I wean him, encompasses the wild thrust of the heart outside the body, the sleepy months of my first child’s life when I grew into motherhood, the insatiable longing I have for children, the bodily drive I feel to kiss his fat cheeks, a longing I no longer have for my older son whose cheeks have grown less plump.
Some days I am full with words that sing out of me; I write essays in my head all day. I see poems coming out of the porches as I pass, pushing the heavy double stroller. The color of my oldest son’s hair makes a sentence with the sun, a story with the color of water, a hymn in the heat flush of cheeks and sandy sweat smell. These are good days.
I take them to the park. I take them to the beach. I sit in the bath in my swimsuit playing with plastic elephants. I pretend I’m getting paid for this. Then I lay face down on my bed in the late afternoon sun and wait for the toddler-baby to come, to tumble into me with his soft cheeks and short legs, with his puff of lips and uncut hair. I am holy in this sun, hallowed by the coming of night, its sanctified silence a division from day. The words of story and essay and poem come from the lifting curtain, the wind, the sound of their feet rumbling through the hall to the front door and back again, waiting for their father to return from his everyday world of work that begins and ends each day at the same time.
You don’t understand, I want to tell the childless, my body seeks my offspring when they are not present and this makes me long for my children more than anything, even as I simultaneously feel smothered. Some part of me yearns for the toddler, my baby, in the way I once did lovers. I know when he is no longer a toddler, when his legs and arms grow into the right proportions, I will not feel this. Hormones change, my body morphs. This desperate love dissipates, slips, and finds new homes. But this longing is complex and cannot be eased with say, getting a babysitter or a full-time nanny, because, at times, not being with them is as hard as being with them.
Once when my oldest son was eighteen months, I was sick with a stomach bug at my parents’ home. I threw up all night and lay in bed sweating through the day. My mother cared for my son but he still nursed and wanted me. “There’s no vacation from motherhood,” my mother scolded. I suppose she was joking but I felt shocked at the realization that women were supposed to do the work of mothering on top of all the other work, whether paid or unpaid, sick or not. Did my mother think I needed to be reminded of my obligations? That having a child as a woman meant a lifetime identity shift, a lifetime of judgment about that identity, and the physical, emotional, and psychic burden brought on by the work of mothering. Is it really women who judge each other? Or are we doing the work of patriarchy, inside a system that at every bend works to dehumanize us?
What is the feminism of motherhood? The slippery shame a woman is made to feel as a mother. The not good enough of her everyday existence transformed into a defiance by way of a love that pledges faithfully to not judge her own children, to let them live freely of their own will, and to never betray them out of fear of what will happen if they don’t conform. But God, do I fail. Have I ever failed at anything more? And yet I am a good mother, good enough.
Feminism is not hatred or blaming of men but the arc of equality for all. Misogyny is a nuanced experience, with no one specific to blame. It is the force and pressure of inheritance, the long history of her body as property and object—mutable and malleable, forced and coerced, and as vessel to be filled. Her sanity questioned. Her postbirth experience institutionalized.
After I had my children, there came a summer during which I incessantly asked my own mother how she could have had six children. I believe my words were, “How could you have done this to yourself?” We would be pushing strollers down the dirt road, turning into the driveway, and I’d ask her again. “I just can’t believe it!” I might exclaim. I do not recall what she said, perhaps she laughed.
“I don’t know. You just do it. It got easier,” she might have said. Her voice breezy, having long ago perfected answers to such questions.
A few years after she had her sixth child, my mother returned to graduate school to study counseling. She took a full-time job as a high school counselor my senior year at the same school.
In college, I must have read “The Yellow Wallpaper” a dozen times. Like many young women, I felt insane. Perhaps I nursed my feelings of insanity in that they seemed like a logical answer to me. At the time, I was suffering from a variety of alienating diseases—eating disorders, alcoholism, mental illness. But let me be clear, women have suffered the label of insanity since the dawn of time.
The other day, while I was leafing through new collections of short stories, a group of young women came in to the bookstore. I watched them, smitten by youth and their brazen confidence, the way they touched each other in reflexive intimacy. As a young woman and college student, I was mostly a loner, and though it was never an option for me, I always regret not attending a women’s college out East. One pointed to a copy of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin and shouted joyfully, “That’s the book that changed my life!” I smiled. Me too. They passed by me and out of the store leaving me breathless.
To grow up with people who love you deeply and yet fail to teach you how to survive and thrive as a woman, with people who tell you your feelings aren’t true, your body is not your own, your God wants you to obey your husband, everything you feel that is not within the bounds of their known world is wrong, is to be made to feel insane.
Often, I have found the term “gaslighting” in reference to women’s experience of the world helpful. Coined from the 1938 play and 1944 film Gaslight, staring Ingrid Bergman, in which her abusive, criminal husband tries to convince her she’s going crazy, gaslighting refers to the tactic of questioning the truth of someone’s experience. We are told that our realities are not true, made to feel paranoid, oversensitive, foolish, or insane when we articulate the experience of inequality. Reality morphs into something she no longer recognizes as she begins to internalize this voice and eventually to make it her own. What is wrong with me? she begins to ask, and not, What is wrong with the world? the more accurate question.
It seems easier just to endure the abuse, which, I have noticed certain women do in response to our culture’s misogyny and sexism. Initially a way to cope, such endurance becomes unconscious and thus a way of life. I think of an old friend’s social media post regarding the Women’s March of 2017: “What, honestly, are they marching over?” Many women would rather identify with the dominant social power even if it means self-betrayal over an entire lifetime. There’s logic to this and it may in fact be the saner option to a lifetime of resistance, of speaking up for and against, of acting as a truth teller.
Moses’s skin is white, a pale and porcelain white, translucent almost. His strawberry blond hair has turned wiry and thick. I watch the way he stands with his belly pushed out and arms hooked on thin shoulders; he looks out over the water at a sailboat.
When I am away from the children I long for them. I want to run my hand over their hair—the soft puff of baby blond and the wiry red—to rub their cheeks with my fingers and squish their faces. I want to eat them. And yet I would be lying not to admit to visions of self-harm, feelings of immutable rage some days when we are together for too long, when my patience drains away. Though I will never take these actions, I am not the only parent who has envisioned throwing her child against a wall or running away. I am not the only parent who has in a fit of defeat screamed “help” or “I can’t take it anymore” to no one. We are not alone, though it feels this way.
As with other things that have lost their grounding in my life, shifting into amorphous blobs of thought-feeling that namelessly hang from my body, I know that I am still opening to motherhood. Morphing through a state of becoming, letting myself be vulnerable, open, wounded.
In the morning, I sit on the futon with my coffee, black and hot. I am vaguely awake and the light coming in through the window lays a square patch of gold down on the honey wood floor, it cuts shadow like the edges of words, the music of a violin sobbing into laughter. I sip and sip. Sometimes I turn on the radio and listen to the news, especially when the ache in me feels ravaging. The words come out of the shadow, made of the darkest light. What is light? What is darkness?
Why, Moses asks, do some bugs fly and others walk? I don’t want to answer this question, even if there were a simple explanation; it seems ruinous in comparison to the delight of his inquiries. I want to hear them, to covet them like lines from the shelter of poetry – lines that cut through all that is soulless and fooled. Just as I like the way Moses used to say the wrong past tense of certain words.
I drinked it.
He runned away from me.
We swimmed in that pool, Mama.
I try to decide if I should define my children in terms of what they are or what they are not. Such definitions are for me alone. Moses is not timid. Moses is bold. My husband says that he is a leader. I say he is stubborn like me. Pigheaded, my people would call it. He only has energy for the things he wants to do, which is my folly also. But we spend hours on the work we love.
I want days of uninterrupted silence, but I fear leaving them too long — what it might do to me, the feeling of grief that covers my body when they are not near me, and the sorrow and shame I tend to nurse. Guilty, guilty, guilty, I often taunt myself. But it is not true. Why should women carry this weight and not men? Whatever we do is never enough. If we stay at home with our children, we’re labeled stupid; if we work, we’re labelled selfish.
They are both quietly at play but I am not free to do anything besides clean and listen to the radio. Anything requiring concentration cannot be undertaken. So I sit. I stare at the light. I let the words flutter up – crisp bodies escaping the light. I think of the whiteness of pages and the black frames of letters. I catalog the colors of the room, considering whether they’re warm or cool and which might be removed, which enhanced. I walk barefoot down the hall into the kitchen, pour more coffee, and then stare out the kitchen window at the sugar maple in my neighbor’s yard. In autumn, it turns a deep and violent red—a color so fierce I want to cry.
Before the children, I wrote in the morning at the edge of dawn. I wrote in the fury of dreams. I wrote when the words came bubbling up, frothy and enraged and when they didn’t come. Before children, rage was not a consideration, though shame has always been—twin forces not to be wed.
I have been trying to explain to a friend why people have children. “Why would someone want to do that to herself?” she asks.
“I think it’s a sickness, a madness, something to do with the chemistry of the body; it’s biology and hormones, and certain people make us want to procreate even more.”
“Not everyone feels that way,” she reminds me.
“Yes, I know,” I say.
I am not trying to convince her to have children. I am trying to remember the way it felt to want children more than anything—to own so singular a desire that I could think of little else. For an entire year I grieved my lack of children like I would the death of someone beloved.
Sometimes I tell her stories about my son pooping. Shitting and letting it fall down onto the floor through the leg of his pants. He stands and looks at it; he must be half-terrified and half-elated that such horror exits his body. She and I run in the heat of spring, sweaty and breathless and sometimes brimming with tears so overwhelmed by our decisions and futures and what we have done. Emboldened by the love for each other we have tended through friendship.
I have been watching the spring again. Walking through the woods by the river I feel light. My sons throw sticks from a late-night bonfire into the water. Then rice cakes, then tiny slivers of a clementine.
The boys run down the muddy bank and then back to me when they see a boat approaching. It’s a small motorboat carrying red buoys. Moses leans into me, Willem sits in my lap. We wave and they wave. We wave again and they call out to us, “Good morning!” This pleases the children immensely.
Sometimes I hear Moses singing, “Ding-dong the witch is dead, the wicked witch…” I cringe. I suppose my greatest fear is that he will grow up to hate women without even realizing it. He will grow up in privilege and deny his.
I take the Princess Leia clad in skimpy Jabba the Hutt prisoner clothes, a chain attached to her wrist, and hide it. Sometimes if I find a tiny weapon, the size of a safety pin, I throw it away, though I’ve stockpiled a cache of these weapons in the kitchen cupboard. While taking vitamins or searching for a snack, I take inventory of my stash.
I tell my husband that teaching children there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in the world, as nearly every children’s movie insists, makes them vulnerable to a dangerous fiction. To believe that evil is exceptional and not banal, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt insisted, is to deny evil its humanity. In so doing, we become blinded, for evil is human and what one is capable of we all are. How will we understand that we too engage in this system of oppression?
I lay beside Moses in the dark, telling him about Martin Luther King Jr. Tentatively at first, trying to think of words or phrases that he will understand. “Tell me more about him, Mom,” he says. I start again. I explain slavery, the civil rights movement (when blacks stood up for themselves), the death of MLK (a great leader, an American hero), all as though it were in the past, which is the lie of history. I too learned about American slavery and the Jewish Holocaust as anomalies, outliers in an otherwise just system of humanity. One in which we could depend on God for justice and safety. If I were there, my eight-year-old self insisted as she read Anne Frank, I would have hidden the Jews. What other role does a white girl have to play in these historical dramas than savior? Perhaps my son feels the same inclination, the same desire for justice, but if so it is most likely due to pop culture. All the TV shows he watches play out the age-old battle of good guy versus bad guy with the good guy or hero always winning.
In the quiet of the room, Moses touches my arm with the tips of his fingers. His brother sleeps in his toddler-sized bed a few feet away. Moses curls his fingers around the cuff of my hand and asks, “Was it a white or a black that shot him, Mom?” He has ninjas that he identifies as the white one, the black one, the blue and the green. He does not see skin in the ways I was socialized to see it, in the way he too may one day understand human bodies. But prejudice is an arbitrary catalog of difference.
He is silent now in the dark, the fan whirring white noise meant to keep them from waking too soon. “Mom,” he whispers.
“Yes?” I say.
“Mom, are we the whites or the blacks?”
I am caught off guard and for a moment I have stumbled into uncharted territory, which is in fact most of the terrain of motherhood. I tell him and he replies, “Why do we have to be the whites?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s just how we were born.” Because what am I to say? He doesn’t want to be the bad guy, which is the heart of the problem in a nation that plunges forward, refusing to formally acknowledge the depths of its wrong, to offer a process of truth and reconciliation for all the horror of a past that keeps on happening. Without amends, will we ever change? Without amends will we ever heal? Like the wealth made of slavery, we inherit this ancestry, we carry it, and thus attempt to cover our shame in oh so many ways.
I once believed that the destruction of women and women’s bodies was the primary binary force in our culture: the first wrong, the original sin that held together the entire system of oppression and violence against bodies deemed other. But women of color face both sexism and racism in their lives, and racism makes sexism worse. I wanted to nail down an answer, to pinpoint an original sin, and I was grasping for something that would offer a solace-like solution. But oppression is anything but simple, anything but easily solved.
We are socialized to create otherness through gender roles; the “us versus them” dynamic is essential to maintaining systems of oppression, which is why a multiplicity of gender identities feels so threatening to patriarchy. Judith Butler wrote that gender is performative, which means it’s an act and an action that requires maintenance and that demands we continually perform it in order to uphold it. But also, that our actions create a desired effect, they generate the myth of a concentrated gender, of a concentrated power. In the same way, Claudia Rankine insists that race and racism is performed, and that racism persists because we maintain systems of oppression by acting out whiteness in our daily lives. We are all implicated in this system. But we can open ourselves to the possibilities that exist in conversations that come from love, that open at the crux of vulnerability, and that refuse to create otherness in any human being.
It is easy for white people to point fingers at other whites: you’re the racist. But this, while at times necessary, often seems like a form of deflection. (I’m not the racist, you are.) How we respond to wrongdoing is of particular importance in creating justice. If we use the tools of dehumanization—racist scum, piece of shit—we maintain the house of the master and his rules.
Today I understand that my life is easier and safer because I am white, middle-class, educated, straight, cisgendered. Though because of my womanhood, my femme body, I know intimately the experience of being hated by one’s culture in ways that some individuals refuse to see or understand. I also know that my privilege must be eradicated if we are to live in a truly just world. When, as a white woman, my privilege is called out, it doesn’t feel good but this feeling is a part of privilege, a protection of it, and I can work through it. I can listen, be of service, be an ally. That I have that choice is also a privilege.
Is it sad that my son has to learn the history he will inherit as the next generation of his country in the quiet safety of his room, which exists in a neighborhood so sheltered that children run around after dark, ride bikes on the street, walk home from school without fear? Yes. But only because children make it very clear how different the world could be. Moses walks alone down the block to a friend’s house at four years old. His life is easier because he will always be protected by his magic white shield.
I don’t yet know how I will teach him to see his privilege and not be blinded by socialization, by his want to not be the bad guy. Or how I will teach him to see hate and remain open to love. I am sure I will fail in many ways; but this is the work of a mother. This is the feminism of motherhood.
What will become of this incessant urge to kiss my children’s cheeks and rub my nose into the unbelievably soft hair, this devastation over tiny feet, this wildfire longing to hold them close enough to hear the beats of their small hearts, the sound of their breath as it catches and releases, the patterning of their souls in certain faces they make? Will I forget the sorrow of a mother when it is no longer mine? Or will it always be there, morphing into form after form of longing? What is certain to me is this: my culture refuses to articulate the truth of motherhood, the reality of women’s lives, the psychic-physical-emotional-mental toll of mothering in a society that pretends the fact that women grow humans inside of their bodies, birth them, and care for them is anything less than wildly heroic.
The children are playing quietly at the window. My coffee is cold. Is it late, I think? Is it too late or is it early in this life? If only we knew—then how would we live, how would we love? Our sacrifices floating like tiny goldfish in a murky stream—so soon forgotten, so easily lost in the tender joy of it all, the radical defiance of hope.
Emily Arnason Casey is a writer, teacher, mother and activist, originally from Northern Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Briar Cliff Review, Hotel Amerika, The Normal School, Hunger Mountain, American Literary Review, and her essay “Laughing Water” received a notables listing in the Best American Essay series. Made Holy, her first collection of essays, was published on September 1, 2019, by the University of Georgia Press, Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction.