Commusings: The Blessing & The Curse by Schuyler GrantMay 08, 2021
Hello Commune Community,
Happy Mother’s Day to anyone who is a mother, has one, or is simply a passive admirer.
This day also represents a significant achievement for me as I have successfully convinced my doting and long-suffering life partner, Schuyler, to pen a Commusings. It is titled “The Blessing and the Curse."
She is referring to motherhood, of course. And this is a topic she is well qualified to address. I dutifully delivered three X chromosomes, but she’s done much of the rest, bless her. Sure, I have been a devoted, affectionate, involved, and loving father. But Schuyler’s dedication to our children and their dance classes and dentistry and school applications and self-esteem issues is nothing less than heroic.
Today, I am enveloped by a profound sense of awe and gratitude, not just for her, but for all mothers who walk the razor’s edge of both baking and earning the bread, nursing both child and parent.
In my more psychedelic moments, I envision Schuyler, somewhat ridiculously, as Durga the Hindu goddess with a dozen arms, bearing not the weapons of ancient India but the tools of modernity: battered iPhone, corporate prospectus, digital thermometer, cast-iron pan, reusable diaper, kitty litter box, father’s bedpan, and wheelbarrow of mulch.
Mothers manage not just to tame chaos but conduct it into symphonies. I hope you enjoy Schuyler’s verbal concerto as much as I did.
I always love to hear from you at [email protected] and you can follow my rantings on IG @jeffkrasno.
In love, include me,
• • •
The Blessing & The Curse
A Mother’s Ode to Her Mother in 5 Parts
by Schuyler Grant
Pt 1: Bittersweet Fruit
I didn’t lust after motherhood. Except for a brief interlude in my early teens when I desperately wanted an itty bitty helpless baby that loved only me. (Oh evolutionary biology - you crafty old bastard.)
My mother, Ann, or Annie as my children have christened her, was an intensely engaged and enchanting mother. She has many talents and a few callings, but I would say her greatest act of lived artistry is the role she’s played as mother and grandmother. Our tight bond lasted until I was around 10, when I woke up one day to discover that she was deeply embarrassing and started calling her hateful names. And she, in turn, basically lost interest in me until I got over myself.
Jeff and I got hitched early, but procreation didn’t even enter the conversation (except as in how to avoid it) for the first 15 years we were together. In fact, I found other people’s children vaguely repellent. And they didn’t care much for me either.
My bias was intellectual as well as visceral. The exciting women in my family eschewed marriage and motherhood for career and artistic freedom. The oft repeated mantra of my famously independent great aunt was “you can’t have it all.” The implication being: You could choose to be a breeder - you poor sot - if you didn’t have the gumption to really live.
But by the time my mid-30s had rolled around, I hadn’t managed to elbow my way into stardom, nor was I on track to become the first female president. And though I didn’t hear a clock ticking, perhaps there was, in fact, a small timepiece buried deep in my womb.
I suspected that I might have trouble getting pregnant, as I’d always had raggedy periods and we’d never been careful about protection all those years, with no mishaps. But surprise, surprise: The alchemy of Xs that would become Phoebe insinuated itself into my uterus almost immediately.
And thus began the assault on my heart.
The trite truisms are in fact true: Having children is deciding forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. Or there are places in the heart you don't even know exist until you love a child. You might want to punch people for saying shit like that… but it’s searingly accurate.
Growing that being - that gaggle of beasts perhaps - will be the unremitting blessing and curse of your life.
Many of the curses are obvious: Sleep wrenched from you from one day to the next. Never to return if you, like me, happen to have drunk the Continuum Concept Kool-Aid. (And if you haven’t - basically this means carrying your kid in a variety of sacks until they’re big enough to play soccer, nursing them until they go to preschool, and most likely never, ever sleeping through the night again.)
I started breeding in 2004, and my three kids are spaced out more or less three years apart, so this means I haven’t slept for almost 17 years. By the time the youngest was sleeping in her own bed through the night, I was a full blown insomniac churning through the litany of nightmares about what Phoebe might be suffering out in the wide world. At the tender hour of 4 AM, your beloved child abducted and left in pieces by the side of the road, is preposterously probable.
A close second to the torture of sleep deprivation is the tedium. Eggs on toast, 1,000 times over. Goodnight Moon for 10,000 increasingly lackluster iterations. The same swing, back and forth with 100,000 half-hearted one-handed pushes (as you do the singlehanded iPhone dance with the other).
But the blessing that trumps all curses is simply The Motherlove. (That crafty old bastard is pushing the best street drug. Your baby’s eyes and smell are a narcotic like no other.)
Beyond the pros and cons of mothering itself, is the bittersweet shifting of identity that comes with it. From discreet personhood to a lifelong divided self. From being the child of your mother, to being the mother of your mother’s grandchild. From feeling individuated from your mother to realizing, with varying degrees of horror, that she has insinuated herself into your nature far deeper than you might have imagined.
By my late teens, I swung back around to adoring my mother. But that didn’t mean I wanted to become her.
• • •
Pt 2: The Scullery Maids
Annie was, still is, epic at play. She can weave pretend worlds that entrance children for hours - and years.
One of the recurring pretend games from my childhood was “King’s Kitchen.” The set up was simple: My mother and I were the lowly Scullery Maids. And my dad, of course, was The King. We were late in making his nightly feast, and we scurried around, chopping, boiling, and baking in a tizzy, to get his Majesty his dinner. The best part was when supper was ready, and we scuttled into the royal bedchamber to scrape and bow and alert his Highness, in our highest, meekest voices, that “dinnah is seeeehved!” My dad was a little nonplussed by these theatrics, but really he was just a prop anyway.
This antediluvian masochism played out as my favorite parlor game for many years. I still marvel that - in Northern California in the 1970s - this never registered to my mother as decidedly patriarchal and retrograde. It was endless entertainment for me. And dinner got made every night without any fuss.
Her energy and enthusiasm for endless make-believe made her a grandmotherly Pied Piper when my three girls were young. Phoebe (now 16), Lolli (13) and Micah (11) all had one preferred ruse called Pet Store. I honestly can’t tell you the plot line (because I so gratefully exited stage left as soon as the play began), but I believe it involved children transforming into animals of all sorts, a cruel pet store owner, and various oddball pet buyers. It captivated my girls. And every time I would see them deep in play, I would marvel at what a lousy mom I am at immersive play. When my children turn to me for undivided attention and flights of fancy, I want to bang my head against the wall. How is it that my mother gave me so much, and I pay so little forward?
But… why do I care? And compare? My mother, myself. My mirror, my shadow.
No mother excels though the whole stretch of raising a human to self sufficiency. Some find the little half-baked loaves that issue from their loins endlessly enchanting. Some feel that an alien has landed, literally, on their lap. Some are a genius with babies but come up against a clash of egos that can start as early as two years old and extend for decades. Some of us just can’t wait until the little critters can hold an intelligent conversation at dinner.
Annie is good for a long stretch, from day 1 to around 10 years old, when girl children in particular start to find her anachronistic at best and somewhat repellent at worst. (Then we usually come around again to her particular brand of genius at around 16… when our social self-consciousness is no longer on hyperdrive.)
The less obvious bittersweet kiss of motherhood is the swift kick in the ass to any solid sense of self you may have cobbled together between the time since you disengaged from your parents’ world and the spitting out of their grandchildren. Just when you think you may have individuated, think again. You become a mother, and slowly, inexorably you become your mother. It’s pretty fucked up.
When I honestly reflect on the patterns of partnership and parenting that undergird our nuclear family, despite the general guise of egalitarianism, I am quietly appalled. The heteronormative patterns that are so deeply embedded in my tissues - from my mother, and her mother, and so on - are not something I have been able to slough off completely.
One of my great regrets as a mother is that I have not made enough progress in modelling liberated personhood. It’s not merely the never-ending cycle of shopping, cooking, cleaning but the mental load mothers carry: The ‘cognitive labor’ of administering who is where and what is when, today, tomorrow, and 6 months from now. The cycling of doctors, dentists, tutors, contractors, play dates, soccer games, dance recitals. And more often than not, we dole out the daily discipline, even if we might not carry the big stick of heavy retribution.
Though Jeff and I have certainly played our part in a generational shift in the sharing of domestic duties, I largely hold the ship together while he gets to man the tiller. He has somehow managed to maintain a degree of autonomy that I have not, despite my best efforts. I can’t help but wonder whether my girls too will play the role of the scullery maid, dressed up in a flimsy guise of empowered feminism.
Thus I offer a Mother’s Day revision of the hackneyed plea for serenity: Grant me the strength to change the things that suck about my mother, the grace to accept the things that just live too deeply in my psyche, and the wisdom to know the difference.
• • •
Pt 3: Love and Puppies
You have to be cruel to be kind. (No, not the ‘80s pop song, or Hamlet’s justification for his lashing out at his mother for the libidinous betrayal of his dead father’s memory.)
Let me explain.
An annual high point for my brother and me was, come springtime, the day when our beloved dog Ceda, belly fully loaded, disappeared to a remote nook of our 30-acre wooded property to deliver her litter of tiny puppies in peace. We would wake up, or come home from school, and scour the property for her natal chamber. Living way out in the country, with no TV and few friends close by, this was big entertainment. We loved them up like crazy until they were old enough to be given away in front of Safeway. Incredibly, every year she had exactly two. Every year. One for each of us. We should have been suspicious, but children are good at rolling with serendipity.
Then one year Ceda chose her sacred spot closer to the house and we watched as she went into labor, heroically delivering the slippery little bodies into the world. One… two…THREE… FOUR!… FIVE PUPPIES!! It was like Christmas in April.
The next day we went to school. Raced home to play with our bounty of babies. And… two puppies awaited us.
It took a while to sink in.
But when it did, a hatred for my mother welled up from gut to head like nothing I had ever experienced.
Annie was raised on a remote Napa ranch, and she was spared neither the rod nor the chores that go with real farm living. The ethos was, if you are going to eat it, you should be able to kill it. From an early age this made philosophical sense to me, but I was soft. And my mom coddled me a bit. I had to pluck the chickens, but managed to beg off gutting them. And the culling of the goats and pigs, I hid from completely.
But dogs were not food, and as a child I couldn’t fathom her ability to slit a puppies throat. Though she tried to impress upon me that this was the quickest and most painless way to go.
My rage was Shakespearean. I don’t have many visceral memories of my childhood, but the depth of my loathing for her in this moment is one. This woman who had nursed me until I was five, and was my best friend as a child, was a monster. I wept for days and wanted to hit her.
It took me until I was a mother myself to understand that this, in her own way, was a gift to us. She took no pleasure in killing those puppies to be sure, but her reciprocal joy in the pleasure we got from the two that were left somehow justified the act. The other option of course would have been getting Ceda fixed. But then no puppies! And the puppies were our profound delight. (I hear you pounding your fists and saying “Or fostering abandoned puppies… Or… Anything but that!” But that just wouldn't have happened in our family, the finding of the puppies needing fostering each year. There were too many other things that needed doing. And delivering these just born pups out of life as quickly as they came did not seem so terrible to my farm-raised mother, on balance.)
And the truth is, though I do not have the steely spine my mother did, I absorbed this part of my mother, just as I did all the light and playful sides. There is a hardness to me that doesn’t have an ounce of sadism, but does have a dose of the puppy killer.
Whether expressed as alignment or reaction, our mothers are embedded inexorably into our psychospiritual selves. Cutting-edge microbiome science is proving that our bodies may be only about 10% ‘self.’ That for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are around 10 resident microbes getting a free ride on our meat wagons. (And If this seems implausible to you - which I agree, it does - I pass you along to Mr Michael Pollan, whose article about the American Gut Project is guaranteed to blow your mind.)
It might seem obvious, but until we are spit out of our mother’s bodies, we are 100% made of mother matter (except for that itsy bitsy, but undoubtedly crucial, contribution of spermatozoa). You are built out of the nutrients she ingests, and even the minerals from her bones and teeth. You are also continually bathed in her hormones, thereby sharing in her fears, her joys, her trauma, and her triumph. In utero, a baby’s gut is sterile, essentially a blank slate, and it takes around 3 years for a child’s microbiome to mature. If you are born vaginally, you are given a bath of beneficial bacteria as you pass through the birth canal, which is the primary boost to your immune system. If you are exclusively breast-fed, you continue this bacterial symbiosis for an extended period.
Slowly, inexorably bacteria from the outside world insinuate themselves into your tissues, just as external influences of family and culture cleave you from your mother’s personhood.
Sapiens - in our modern, Western iteration anyway - are obsessed with this process of cultivating our autonomy and discreet identity. But the undercurrent of our desire to return to an unindividuated state runs deep. We seek it through religion, sex and psychedelics. And motherhood is one of the most direct ways to mainline a liminal state of merged identity.
One of the sweetest fruits of The Motherlove is unfettered access to your young child’s body. First you carry them in you everywhere, then you carry them on you almost everywhere, and even as they begin to adventure into the world you share a wholesome sensuality that is unparalleled by any other intimacy.
But this blessing is perishable. Micah, at the end of her pubescence, is still firmly within arm’s reach. I can still squeeze her little butt and snuggle her all night long and she doesn’t shrink from me. Lolli, my gorgeous middle, will indulge me in the occasional mauling, but “go away Mom” has replaced “will you snuggle in my bed” more often than not. Phoebe occasionally wraps her long limbs around me, from her advantage of 4 inches, gracing me with a gangly hug. It feels a bit like how I used to dole out ice cream for a job well done.
All I can hope is that one day they will complete the cycle, and gift me with an itty bitty, helpless grandbaby... who loves both of us.
• • •
Pt 4: The Case for Staying Alive
The farm girl in my mom must have been bothered by one conundrum that has long stumped evolutionary biologists: What is the point of human grandmothers?
Why have Homo sapien women evolved to live long after they are able to reproduce, unlike almost all other animals. If you subscribe to an evolutionary understanding of the universe and believe our ultimate purpose in life is to create as many offspring as possible in order to pass on as many genes as we can muster, menopause makes no sense.
Annie is a voracious reader who culls for interesting anecdotes, especially of an anthropological nature, which she will share freely (and repeatedly) with anyone who will listen. One of her favorites that gets trotted out on the regular goes like this:
Did you know societies that have a strong tradition of grandmothers living in the extended family unit thrive better than those without a grandmother around? But wait, there’s a one-two punch: And if a grandfather is living in the extended family unit, there is a poorer multigenerational outcome?
I confess that I too find this a galvanizing ‘fact’ in a clearly self-serving way. I like to think of myself as having great biologic utility some day, rather than slipping inexorably into decrepitude, hounding my future grandchildren to answer my calls. I’ve even found myself repeating this anecdote, without ever having confirmed its validity. I dislike this tendency of mine, so I called my mom and asked her where she gleaned this theory, and she had only a vague recollection that there was a Finnish researcher involved.
Biologist Virpi Lummaa combed through two centuries of birth, marriage, and death records in order to understand human reproductive behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Lummaa proposes that the historical data set answers the conundrum of women, menopause, and grandmothering.
Among the many fascinating things Lummaa postulates as a result of her findings is that the reason we women carry on living so long is that we provide an evolutionary edge. She proposes that having a grandmother around vastly improves the reproductive potential of her offspring. In reviewing stats on 3,500 Finnish and French Canadian women (who had a combined total of 106,000 grandchildren) she confirmed that having a grandmother in the household enabled women to have more children sooner and with improved chances of surviving into adulthood.
Lummaa later turned her attention to the effect of grandfathers on grandchildren, and found that, if anything, there’s a negative effect. She postulates this could be because of the cultural tradition of catering to men, particularly old men. “Maybe if you had an old grandpa, he was eating your food,” she speculates. Or possibly because men can continue to reproduce, they are less vested in any particular set of children. Another theory is that women can be sure a grandchild is their genetic descendant, while a grandfather might always suspect a mailman (or in my case, a hot surfer) is in the mix.
I hear my dear old dad piping up from the wings. “Hey! What about us? Are we really just set dressing?” And no, of course our fathers (or our lack of a father) are also deeply woven into the tapestry of our psyches, but the lineage of mother to mother is a particularly complex stitch.
So, knowing how beloved you are to me, you can go back to enjoying your choice cut of meat, Your Highness.
• • •
Pt 5: So… Happy Mother’s Day
Annie will surely not call me on Mother’s Day. Nor will I call her. Neither of us is partial to these kinds of holidays. (The last time we spoke my mom got my birthday a month off, just as I will likely begin to forget my own daughters’ birthdays once the onus of producing a birthday extravaganza is off my plate.) But she showers me with long and short missives, as long as they don’t align with a Hallmark holiday. Her latest snail mail began thus:
Hey Skye… thinking about you right this moment. Thinking with pleasure of our latest text thread (by the time you get this letter that thread will have turned into a gone will o’ the wisp). It was a great text exchange of love between a Mother and a Daughter. Why not? Both go through motherhood together even if separated by time. And not that much time really. It’s interesting: I have somewhat relived my own young motherhood by way of watching you with your children. Something to look forward to… I think, when cultures separate mothers and daughters by way of marriage custom and such, in my opinion, such a culture is going down a very scary path. Over the years Skye I have read a number of accounts of different, very different cultures. Some are a great deal more beneficent toward the bonds between mothers and daughters. So far I believe that the social climate that we are in is tending toward positive bonds toward our children. Damn! Dear girl… enough of the bloviating.
Would I trade it in? The alchemy of tedium and ecstasy, attachment and surrender, dead puppies and Motherlove? The triple helix of daughter, mother, grandmother?
You know I wouldn’t. Even given all of the neuroses and derangement I am, at this very moment, weaving into my three beloved daughters tender psyches.
Of course, my great aunt was right. You can’t “have it all.” But motherhood is not something you can tabulate. It’s murky and contradictory and miraculous. And it’s plenty.
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