Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Rachel Skei Donihoo

I've given you sunlight.
I've given you rain.
Looks like you're not happy,
'Less I open a vein.
I'll give you a few drops
If that'll appease.
Oh please, oh please, grow for me.

-Little Shop of Horrors

I often daydream about being approached by a documentary filmmaker interested in doing a day-in-the-life film about my family. It's not that I think my life would make great material, it's just that I'd give anything to see it from an audience's perspective.

I'd like to see my son's face from a different angle as I pull his juice-soaked T-shirt over his head and usher him into the bathroom for a clean-up. I'd like to watch myself argue with my daughter over which shoes she'll wear for her class picture, and I'd like to see her smile when I pick her up from school. I'd like to watch myself nuzzle my children's necks, wash their sippee cups, coax them into sharing their toys, and yell when they won't.

Motherhood is dizzying. Forced into the thankless fray, I find it impossible to see the experience for what it really is. The film would help me see my life and, if set to pretty music, I think it would remind me that happiness is mine for the taking.

A 35-year-old childless friend of mine flew in to visit for the weekend not long ago. Clearly overwhelmed by the Kidville that has become my home, she confided that she and her husband were seeing a therapist to help them decide whether or not they should have children. The psychologist, my friend said, was "helping them see the benefits of parenthood. You know, weigh the pros and cons." She was proud that she was doing her homework -- confident that she would one day enter, or refuse, the job of motherhood well-informed and well-prepared. She was serious. I wanted to laugh out loud.

We are a bitter bunch, we mothers. No matter how fiercely, how completely, we love our children, we are often rather unbecomingly pissed off. It's not that we don't feel lucky, or proud or even completely enraptured by their little lives, it's just that our devotion comes at such an unspeakable price.

The swirl of hours and weeks and years that come after the birth of a child is so powerful, so transforming that to believe you could ever be prepared for it is, well, grounds for therapy. The exhaustion, the tedium, the frustration, the tenderness. It covers you like a landslide of warm sand, which you spend the rest of your life alternately sinking in to and digging out of. It's a life that is both lush and arid, but it's never the same again.

Before my daughter was born, I used to imagine what I'd look like, act like, be like as a mother. I fantasized about myself in certain situations: birthday parties, parent-teacher meetings, Christmas pageants. I was organized, well-dressed, cheerful, accessorized. It wasn't that I pictured someone other than myself. It was me. It's just that it was the was me, the former me. Not the now me with the limp ponytail and here-wipe-your-nose-on-my sleeve clothes. That's not the kind of woman I pictured. I didn't know that woman. I still don't.

And so when my visiting friend is put out that I can't shuttle her to Starbucks until 11:00 a.m. for her daily Caramel Macchiato with skim milk, I'm sad. Sad because her life is all about her, and my life is no longer about me.

Before my children were born, I spent inordinate amounts of time worrying about my looks, my ex-boyfriends, and how I would spend the jackpot if I won the lottery. These days, I worry about religion and violence and bioterrorism and permanently running out of Band-Aids. I believe all this probably makes me a better person. It does not, however, make me a happier one.

Happiness, as central to my life as it once was and as many years as I spent chasing it now seems secondary to other things. Other things like the happiness of my children, for one; and survival, for another. These days, selfish desires are simply beside the point. To a toddler, what Mommy wants to do today is a don't-care case.

An afternoon at Chucky Cheese's (and I have spent many) does not make me happy. Neither does prying a $20 toy out of a hysterical toddler's hand in Wal-Mart (and I have done it, many times), or buying it just to keep the peace (which I've done many more). A lazy Sunday lying in bed reading, popping M&M's, and watching TV alone would make me happy (but it simply doesn't happen anymore).

That's not to say that I don't find soaring, profound joy in the love of my children. I do. And I also find great pleasure in watching them find happiness. I guess therein lies the problem -- I've become a bit of a voyeur, and less of a player.

There was a frantic time when my son was an infant that I obsessed about missed opportunities, real and imagined, and dreamed desperate dreams about running endless laps while the starting gun fired again and again. I felt trapped, off-kilter and terribly alone. When I shared my desolate emotions with my husband, a man who loves me and wants me to be happy, he responded with silence. He couldn't even pretend to understand. This startling sacrifice truly is woman's work.

I have much I'd like to tell my coffee-drinking friend, but I'll spare her. She couldn't possibly grasp the incomprehensible cost of motherhood. Nor could she fathom how exquisite its rewards.

If I close my eyes, I can envision the documentary. Slow motion children, hair blowing, chasing bubbles across the yard. Smiling daddy, lifting smiling children over his head. Tired mommy, kneeling down to kiss bloody knees. Happy family, too busy to notice the camera.
Rachel Skei Donihoo is a part-time writer and full-time mother. Her award-winning work has appeared in Brain,Child magazine and numerous other national publications. She was raised in California, and now lives in McKinney, Texas with her photographer husband and two children. She can be reached at rachel.donihoo@utsouthwestern.edu