I still remember the day Sandra, my creative writing professor, handed back a draft of one of my stories. She gave me the sheaf of paper after class, smiled, and paused.
“The story has a lot of potential, Heather,” she said. “But I think you could develop more compassion for your characters.”
I nodded, but my heart sank. Sandra was my favorite professor, and I’d learned her critique went straight to the marrow of what I needed to learn as a writer. But that did not make her insight easier to hear.
Here’s why I thought I knew where my lack of compassion for my characters came from. It was my lack of compassion for myself.
People were in boxes: good/bad. Kind/unkind. Healthy/unhealthy. Strong/weak. Brave/cowardly. Empathetic/hard-hearted.
I wished I was in a “good” box, but knew I was not. I did not know how to become worthy of anything better. I despised myself for my incompetence. Of course, self-hatred makes it almost impossible to get better. If you are mired in shame, you are blind, deaf, dumb.
Sandra’s critique hurt my heart because I was pregnant with my first baby at the time. I was frightened at the idea of becoming a mother who struggled with compassion. I so desperately wanted to do motherhood right.
Can I be honest? I failed at motherhood just as I’d feared I’d fail. I could not figure out how to get my baby to sleep, so I did not sleep. I could see the kindness eroding out of me with each sleepless night, and it was like watching a timer count down to an explosion. I could not figure out how to be at peace. I could not figure out how to be kind to my husband. I could not figure out how not to resent my kid.
I did not know what to do, so I hung on by my fingernails. I kept showing up and changing diapers, sometimes without compassion. I dipped into post-partum depression, and then out of it. I failed every day, and then I failed less, and then I existed, and then about two years after the birth, I was happy again, reasonably competent at motherhood and no longer resentful.
And I discovered, to my surprise, that I wanted another baby, desperately, even though I knew it might cost me more failure. I decided that I could forgive myself for failing because I was hungry to give more love.
Forgiving my own abject failure was like a fever burning away a sickness. The failure I had only just survived kindled my compassion for myself. Suddenly, I understood why mothers speak of early motherhood in a hush, and also why they seem so unflappable. My enoughness was so very little, but it was enough.
I am grateful that motherhood broke me. I am even somewhat grateful I was lousy at it for so long (though I hate that I did wrong by my child). I realized being lousy at something important did not have to end my story. I realized that most people were lousy at parenting for a good long while. I saw that I was only human, and that that was good news.
I had always wondered what I’d have to do to be worthy. It was this: I had to see there was absolutely no way to earn worthiness. Empathy is seeing your own frailty in other people. How else can we be saved but by tasting failure?
Image credit: arjun karkhanis