Andrew Solomon has produced some of the most articulate, intelligent writing about parenthood which hopefully is forcing us to finally expand our definition of what parenthood is. I’ve felt for a long time, ever since becoming a mother 8 years ago, that most literature is simplifying parenthoods’ complexities. Solomon’s book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is an exception: at 976 pages (or 40 hours long for the audio version!) it more than captures the pain, sorrow, and love that I know as parenting, and it shows, likewise, that parental love can take on so many forms. And that trying to love can be as meaningful as loving. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences that I’ve ever had. I read it two years ago, but after my son was diagnosed with autism last fall, I went back to reread the autism chapter, and found the accounts even more moving, as I now was one of those parents trying to understand, accept and love a child so different from me. Solomon’s discussion on neurodiversity as it relates to parents is especially rich– do parents try to cure their child’s autism or accept it– as well as his description of the “autism parents’ literature of miracles,” whose draw is hard to ignore.
“Two diametrically opposite fictions contribute to a single set of problems. The first comes from the autism parents’ literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm. Such narratives of false hope eviscerate families who are struggling with the diagnosis. The other plotline is that the child does not get better, but the parents grow enough to celebrate him rather than seek to improve him and are fully content with that shift. This whitewashes difficulties that many families face and can obfuscate autism’s authentic deficits. While the lives of many people who have autism remain somewhat inscrutable, the lives of people whose children have autism are mostly avowedly hard—some, excruciatingly so. Social prejudice aggravates the difficulty, but it is naïve to propose that it’s all social prejudice; having a child who does not express love in a comprehensible way is devastating , and having a child who is awake all night, who requires constant supervision, and who screams and tantrums but cannot communicate the reasons for or the nature of his upset— these experiences are confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, unrewarding. The problem can be mitigated by some combination of treatment and acceptance, specific to each case. It is important not to get carried away by either the impulse only to treat or the impulse only to accept.”
The journey to find a cure for one’s child is exhausting and disappointing. One could devote, or lose, their life to that sort of thinking: if only I read the right books, or enough books, or find the right therapist, or implement to ideal parenting methods, etc. Solomon describes one mother who accepts her son’s condition as being more at peace than the other mothers with him he spoke: “Marvin Brown’s mother, Icilda, has delineated what she can influence and what she cannot, and she does not rail against what is beyond amelioration. It is easy to patronize “simple wisdom” by honeying the rough circumstances from which it generally springs, or by representing it as simpler or wiser than it is, but Icilda Brown seemed more at peace with her son’s condition than almost any other mother I met. A lifetime of nonchoices had given her a gift for acceptance. She demanded good services for her son, but did not expect those services to turn him into someone else.”
Solomon wrote a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about pregnancy and depression, and I think this article works to do the same thing Far From The Tree does. Pregnancy, like parenthood, is not this joyful experience for everyone. The ending of the article is lovely, and the last line breaks my heart in its truth: “Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.” Mothers will try to love their children, Solomon acknowledges, but not all mothers are able to love their child in they way they intended to love. I think what Solomon is saying applies not only to pregnancy but to motherhood, and not only to women with depression but also to women who struggle with the realization that they can’t be, for whatever myriad of reasons, the sort of mother they thought they were going to be.
“We still have retrograde ideas about how pregnant women should feel, and we need to revise them — not only for depressed women but for all women. Pregnancy is portrayed and talked about almost exclusively as a time of rapture and fulfillment. But it involves a major shift in identity, a whole new conception of self that can lead to depression and anxiety. Change — even positive change — is stressful, and in this way pregnancy can constitute a kind of elective trauma. An abrupt transition into selflessness is not immediately appealing to everyone. Pregnant women long given to self-doubt may question their ability to take care of the child. A society that glorifies motherhood while resisting basic accommodations like guaranteed extended maternity leave makes the identity shift more frightening and abrupt than it needs to be. People given to anxiety now have a harrowing array of new anxieties to grapple with. As one woman I interviewed observed, “The things that make motherhood joyful also make it terrifying.” We should strive for a more pluralistic idea of pregnancy — for one that accommodates a wide range of moods and attitudes.
The British psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker has argued that competent mothering requires two warring impulses — to nurture the child on one hand, and to push him or her into the world on the other — and suggested that maternal ambivalence was the catalyst for achieving these apparently opposed objectives. But modern society has stigmatized the pushing and sentimentalized the clinging, and so we have denied basic truths and caused ambivalent mothers to see themselves as bad even though ambivalence can be highly productive. Mothers often exaggerate, to themselves and to others, their protective, adoring feelings, and they discount their feelings of irritation or anger as weaknesses. But a child should meet with irritation and anger some of the time; he or she should understand what those emotions are, what provokes them, how they are expressed and how they are resolved. Depression is obviously not desirable, but openness about it is tied to being honest about the challenges that motherhood entails. And that openness must begin prenatally if it is to be realized once a child has entered the picture.
There are many things that can help depressive women: the love of a supportive partner and friends, of course, but also acknowledgment of their illness and ready access to effective treatment. Most who battle antenatal or postpartum depression are committed to their children, and are trying to commit to the identity that is motherhood. For some expectant mothers and new parents, love seems to be automatic; it wafts them instantly up to a new level of consciousness. Others have to climb a very steep staircase to reach the same heights. The fact that the exercise can be agonizing and that some women cannot quite make it does not dull the intent behind it. Depression calls on resources some women have and some women don’t, including a capacity to hatch intimacy out of despair. Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.”