In Virginia Woolf's magnificent 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay is the mother of eight children, ranging in age from 17 to 6, and she spends her life thinking and working towards the happiness of others. She is a soothing, sociable, lovely mother, an indulgent wife, a thoughtful neighbor. She has aspirations to better the dairy system and improve the delivery of less expensive and more healthful milk -- but when she even alludes to these aloud, her whole family laughs at her over the dinner table. It is not intended (by them) to be the cruel laughter of derision, but rather the silvery tinkling laughter of those sharing a joke at no one's expense. But it nonetheless feels unbearably cruel to a reader who by this point in the novel understands Mrs. Ramsay's life of giving and giving and giving and sympathizes with her interest in doing something intellectually challenging. Of course, to the merry party gathered around her dinner table in 1927, there is nothing better she could possibly choose to do than manage such a glorious meal even on the wilds of the Scottish coast in their summer vacation home.
At one point, Mrs. Ramsay reflects on the value of the occasional moments she has to herself, which she characterizes as her time,
To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.I find this image incredibly powerful as a way to describe the life of a woman who lives almost exclusively for others: when she is alone, she shrinks to a small bit of darkness that no one else can see -- hiding, as it were, the very essence of her being from prying eyes by way of protecting that tiny scrap of self from being absorbed as well in the demands of "all the being and the doing."
Julie Pippert asks, in her query for the week, to what limits one would go for one's children. And I have to answer: apart from matters of life or death, I would stop well short of becoming Mrs. Ramsay. Although it may go without saying, I will say anyway that if life or health depended upon it, I would do anything for my children -- fight off a bear with my camera, travel halfway around the world to consult a doctor, sell all my stuff, donate a kidney, you name it.
On the other hand, when it comes to the day-to-day, to the wants as opposed to the needs, I draw the line of self-sacrifice somewhat closer. Because my children are still very young (4 and 2), and therefore prone to disaster, poor judgment, and all the harms that may befall children who cannot read or (in the case of Daughter) cannot even speak fluently, I do spend a tremendous amount of time watching out for them. I neglect working on my book to teach Son how to sew. (On Monday, he hand-stitched the seams on a cowboy vest for his teddy.) I neglect to put on make-up or dry my hair most mornings in favor of changing diapers or making breakfast. I choose dinner menus on the basis of least common denominators from whatever sliver of Venn diagram includes both their preschool tastes and my requirement that we all eat vegetables. I plan my daily schedule around naptimes and mealtimes and known melt-down triggers.
But I do not plan to do this forever.
I want my children to be independent, well-rounded, thinking creatures who can fend off their own looming boredom. I want them to be under-scheduled enough that they actually get bored occasionally. I want them to learn that intellectual curiosity is the key to a fascinating world -- and I want them to know how to look stuff up to find answers.
I understand that I will have to teach them these things. I take it as my job to guide them towards these skills, to foster their growth, to support them when they struggle. But, in fact, I do not think it is my job to keep them from failing at something. No one can be the fastest, smartest, mathest, writingest, buildingest, and coolest every single minute of the day. And that's an important lesson to learn too.
Even more, I think, it is important to learn that we are a family. And being a family means that we share many things -- laughter, vacations, a love of meatballs-and-macaroni-and-cheese, and responsibilities to each other. We owe each other a little private time every day. I must do the best I can to raise thoughtful, considerate, smart kids with reasonably good judgment, and then I must stand back and be willing to let them make some mistakes and learn something from them. They must let me help, guide and teach them, and they must let me stand back. As much as I have an obligation to help them learn, being part of a family means that as they get older and more capable of some independence, they will have an obligation to let me have some time for myself as well.
I think it is vitally important that they understand that Mama has needs too. Not that I will expect them to take over what are justifiably a parent's jobs at home, but that I will expect them to respect my own ambitions, my time, my dreams, just as I respect theirs. It will be a struggle, I can already see, to help them learn that they do not need me in the same room as them every single minute of the day, that I do not need to serve as a witness or bear affirmation to every successfully cooked air omelette. But I will stick to my feeling that they must learn this.
Because I see in Mrs. Ramsay's fate the net result of never teaching one's children the value of oneself as an individual. When, a hundred or so pages into the novel, after the summer is over and the house is boarded up, we learn the following (yes, the original is enclosed in [ ]), it is an incredible shock:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]Her death is recorded as a dependent clause stuck in the middle of a parenthetic sentence whose subject is her husband. In short, Mrs. Ramsay has shrunk to such an infinitesimal wedge-shaped core of darkness that she has disappeared, and the only reason anyone even notices she is gone is that she is not there to catch them when they fall.
I do not need to be famous or wealthy, but I do need to be Somebody. A whole person. An individual. I need my children to need me, to love me, and to see the strength in standing next to me rather than attached to me. That will not happen for some years, I expect, as they slowly grow to a point where alone-time becomes valuable and important for them as well. But it is my hope that they will see through my example that while accolades may come and go, races may be won or lost, a Self is the one thing no one can take from you. Unless you allow that to happen. I do not want them ever to allow that to happen to themselves. And so I think I must show them how I can love them with my whole heart and at the same time not allow mothering to so consume me that I allow my own Self to disappear. I do not know exactly where I will draw the line in future, but I do know that wherever that line is, there will be a brightness, not a darkness, that demarcates it.