I am not an octopus.
I’ve heard of “tiger moms” and “helicopter moms.” Today I want to talk about “octopus moms” and why I’m not one–and why this sometimes makes me feel guilty. For on this Mother’s Day, as many mothers do, I find myself thinking about what kind of mother I am.
The female octopus, after her eggs are fertilized by a mate, finds a cave or other sheltered place to lay them. For the months of their gestation, she guards them constantly. At last, they hatch and release the tiny baby octopi into the sea. The mother remains behind in the cave–and promptly dies, because she hasn’t eaten anything during the entire process.
No, I don’t have what it takes to be an octopus. It’s not that I wouldn’t cheerfully step in front of a bullet for my child–I would, as would most of us. It’s not that I wouldn’t go hungry if my child needed food; of course I would.
But the octopus style of parenting–pouring all of oneself into raising a child, putting one’s own needs aside for a couple of decades–isn’t suited to me. In past decades it was the norm; today things are a bit looser, but being a mother is still about sacrifice.
I don’t think I’m alone (I write that often, but that’s part of what Not This Song is about) in the humbling knowledge that I can only go so far along the path of devoted self-sacrifice. Where doing things for oneself is a healthful and good choice for some mothers, for us it’s a necessity. As are medical care, times for healing, and other help that might interfere with the uninterrupted pursuit of what’s best for the children we love.
If I were actually an octopus, do you know what would happen? There, in that cave, I would try to guard my eggs until they hatch. I would do my very best. But I’d die too early. I wouldn’t have the strength to last until the end without nourishment. My decaying body would lie in the cave, attracting scavengers, and my half-developed offspring would be–well, lunch.
Octopi have no choice; their instincts drive them to act as they do, just as ours drive us to try. But I have choices, and I make them constantly. I look for balance. Sometimes I have to seek it because I’m an imperfect person and have fallen prey to selfishness or laziness; other times I must seek it because it truly will make me a better mother and the alternative will make me a worse one.
I went back to school when my daughter was two, because I needed “food.” I go to meetings, and conventions, and write, and read, and play mindless games, because I need “food” and rest. I do lots of things when I could be focusing on her schooling, or her physical needs, or just generally living in the I Am a Mother reality full-time.
Last year on Mother’s Day, in Calla Lilies, I wrote about mothers who are in rehab, or hospitals, or prison on Mother’s Day. I wrote about the pain of being in that situation, and the privilege of having it be different now. Of the mothers still there, I wrote “I know better than to judge your love for your children based on where you are.”
I do know. I believe we are all doing our best–even those who have done things that, objectively, mean their best kind of sucks right now. Perhaps they’re the metaphorical octopi who lacked the strength to make it, and didn’t know where to seek food. Their spirit died in that cave, or they fled the cave in terror of death. But that doesn’t mean they never tried.
I want to believe that, if my daughter is ever a mother herself, reading this will help her forgive herself for any imperfections and give herself permission to nourish herself as much as she needs, without comparing herself to others. This, like everything I write, is a love letter to her. Today, it’s also for all mothers and future mothers everywhere.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of us–and to the cephalopod mothers, I wish you some kind of joy or pleasure borne on the ocean currents.