Of all the advice people love to give to young mothers, some of the most prolific is on how to be patient with small children, certainly a necessary skill. Yet the state of mind required for happiness at home with small children isn’t really patience, as such. It’s a kind of flow that transcends patience: an attentiveness to and delight in minutiae that others don’t seem to notice. It’s something like the state of mind required for watching the film Into Great Silence—or for living in a monastery. It is a Theresian “little way” of detachment from goals of one’s own, as the time when those goals might have been achieved slips irretrievably away. It is the patience of the surfer of the waves of boredom, as described by David Foster Wallace:
“Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”
Thank God that the bliss lies on the other side, as experience has shown me that it does. And thank God this sort of endurance test is also required of writers, or I would never have encountered it before embarking on motherhood. Women with little or no such previous experience must also fight their way through boredom’s waves, and I think from hearing some of their stories that an unprepared person tends to fare worse when first plunked down inside five rooms with a tiny being whose need-based behaviors can’t be disciplined, scheduled, or predicted, and who depends entirely on her body for nourishment. Even for the experienced, the brain goes begging. When not well supplied with its own nourishment, it can wander into some dark and dry deserts.
While I am gone from what most people consider high-pressure environments, still the habit of internalized pressure is not gone from me. (“Wherever you go, there you are,” right?) I’m impatient for success, in heaven and on earth, and I do not know whether success will come. Not knowing scares me, but more and more the experience of meeting the daily tasks and accepting the daily gifts is peeling away this fear, baring me ribbon by ribbon to the air like the potato I am. It is stripping off not the desire for excellence, but the desire for validation.
I will know this deceitful desire is gone when I can accept my limitations in the way described by Caryll Houselander, when I can
stop striving to reach a goal that means becoming something the world admires, but which is not really worthwhile, [and] instead . . . realize the things that really do contribute to our happiness. . . . the things that satisfy our deeper instincts: to be at home, to make things with our hands, to have time to see and wonder at the beauty of the earth, to love and to be loved. . . . To work for real human happiness implies unworldliness, the kind of unworldliness that is usually a characteristic of artists, who—in spite of glaring faults—prefer to be poor, so that they may be able to make things of real beauty as they conceive it, rather than to suit themselves to the tastes and standards of the world.
As a mother and an artist, I am grateful for the space and peace to pursue these deeper instincts daily. One minute motherhood will seem like the limiting condition on art; the next it will appear as the only hope for preserving the bliss on the flip side of boredom that is art’s necessary prerequisite. I would never have had the opportunity to rediscover this characteristic bliss of childhood and preserve it into adulthood, if not for my creaturehood as a woman and my re-creation as a mother. At times this cycle is breaking me completely, but only in order to rebuild me. There is reason to be grateful for this.