By Barbara Matousek
I spent much of this past weekend in the black leather rocker that was my nearly constant companion before I had kids. I used to spend hours in that chair, rocking and reading, losing myself for days in a Toni Morrison novel or the latest issue of Best American Short Stories or maybe 20 minutes with Alice Munro’s latest fiction in the New Yorker. But that chair and I haven’t spent much time together since my second maternity leave, since Eva’s eight short weeks of exclusive mommy bonding time expired and I returned to work and a routine that rarely affords me time to sit down, let alone read. But last week when a friend created a cash mob for our local independent bookstore, I ventured out without my children and bought two Toni Morrison novels (I’m that far behind) and the 2012 Best American Short Stories and Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. And despite the long list of things I needed to get done this weekend in between meltdowns and meals, I rocked and read and lost myself in the stories and the beautiful, compassionate, generous advice of Cheryl Strayed’s online persona Sugar. While I read her advice to married men contemplating affairs and single women contemplating motherhood and scared young people trying to figure out how to get unstuck, my children made forts out of the couch pillows and threw play-doh against the dining room walls and scribbled all over the barstool cushions with permanent black marker. But I sighed and folded back the front cover of the book and kept reading.
“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it,” Sugar writes to a divorced man trying to understand love.
And in letter after letter, she responds to complex emotions and difficult problems with simplicity and empathy.
Parenting is one of those things that teaches you about yourself over and over again. Being a mom has changed me because I can see not only what I’ve been avoiding learning about myself, but I can see what I want my children to learn. Would I want my children to learn that it’s okay to invest energy in a relationship that is sucking energy from them? No. Would I want my children to learn that life is always easy and life is always fair? No. Would I want my children to learn that people can simply be labeled as good or bad and that there aren’t layers of complexity in between? No.
I want my children to learn that people are basically good at heart and life is sometimes messy and painful but life is often joyful and these two things go together and that is the beauty of life. I want them to learn that when others hurt us or anger us, it’s not always about us. I want them to learn how to feel safe and yet how to take risks. I want my children to learn about loving and forgiving and being compassionate and setting boundaries. I want them to learn to soar. I want them to learn to risk failure. And I want them to learn that no matter what, no matter what, it will all be okay.
Flight attendants on an airplane tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first and then take care of others. And this is something I’m often saying to friends. This weekend as I set out to lose myself in the pages of a book, I instead reconnected with my writer/reader self and the rocking chair that helped me weather painful breakups and job losses and the death of my father. Thank you, Sugar, for helping me put my oxygen mask back on.