With Child
Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor

The Shadow Side of Mothering
Julie Nichols

[p.132]About the time I became a mother for the third time, I began to feel a certain kind of panic—and a certain kind of disbelief that there are mothers who can keep having children and not feel as trapped as I. “Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue” was written after my fourth child was born, and after I met a couple of women who had used the very recipe in the story to terminate pregnancies in a private and noninvasive way. I understood why they did it, and I wanted to write something about Mormon women—who are my women, after all—who were faithful and obedient and yet empowered enough to take control of their reproductive life. I wanted to show how Grandma Maynard could approve of feminism, and to suggest a possible justification for such approval in her witnessing of Prudence’s story. I wanted hearts to ache for Prudence, who had no support but whose situation was really no different from mine, only more exaggerated. In fiction the rule is: exaggerate the conflict in order to justify the resolution.

But in real life there’s no need to exaggerate the conflict. Children are a blessing—we’re told this from the time we’re children ourselves. I’m telling the truth when I say that for me there is nothing in the universe like holding a newborn baby—nothing. Utter magic. However, at the same time I heard that children would be my crown and my glory, I also heard “You can do whatever you want to,” “God gave you gifts so you could serve the Kingdom of God,” and “Your talents are your greatest assets.” I excelled academically my whole life, won awards and recognition, and based much of my feeling of self-worth on my ability to think and write and speak. I loved to read, and I wanted to share this love, both as a student and as a teacher. It never seemed at all logical that I should give up this love for children, and I never intended to.

So I played superwoman till that third child came. I attended gradu-[p.133]ate school, wrote scholarly and creative pieces, and taught at the university while I was a young wife bearing those babies. About five years into my marriage, I nearly had a nervous breakdown—about the time I had two preschool sons and a colicky sleepless new daughter and a husband whose job didn’t provide adequately for us, so that I also taught at the university to keep food on the table. I have a clear memory of standing in my front yard watching the boys tumble and play with half the other neighborhood children while the baby screamed herself purple, and being paralyzed by exhaustion and tears. My elderly neighbor saw me weeping helplessly and in a gesture that seems now to me to be the epitome of kindness, she picked up my baby and rocked her and suggested I go inside and rest. Reality would not let me play at being superwoman any longer.

In the LDS church we don’t like to focus much on what Jung called “the Shadow.” In 1992 and 1993 I received counseling and training in a psychological technique called “Voice Dialogue,” developed and described in detail by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone in their books Embracing Our Selves, Embracing Each Other and Embracing Your Inner Critic. Briefly, the theory is that each of us identifies with certain primary “voices” which we tend to think we are. For me, and for many Mormon women, I suspect, that primary voice is “traditional mother/wife.” For me, duty and hard work were the only pathways to what I felt responsible Mormon womanhood compelled me to be: a wife who filled in where her husband lacked, and a mother who made sure her children were provided for physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially regardless of what happened to my own heart, my own soul, in the meantime. “My own heart, my own soul” would be satisfied by my ability to achieve this goal, or so I understood the official story to say.

But according to the doctors Stone, the first law of physics—that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—prevails in our personalities as well. In each of us there is a “disowned voice” for every “primary voice”—a voice that yearns for expression, and that makes us ill if it is not embraced by an aware consciousness. It’s precisely the principle Jesus was following when he said to those who would destroy the adulteress, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone”:  we have in us the potential for every kind of behavior, and if we deny this we deny ourselves the potential for Christlike compassion.

[p.134]Let me explain. During those first five years of my marriage I denied any “voice” in me but the traditional mother/wife voice—which for me meant that I denied not only any angry or desperate or frightened part of me (since a good wife and mother is in control all the time, especially if she’s been a bright and capable person all her life), but also that I denied any part of me that could have spontaneous, irresponsible fun. I denied myself my own kind of play, though I took my children to the park often enough and pushed them on swings and sat with them on the floor at home and built Lego creations and read them the entire Wizard of Oz series and taught them songs and sewed them Halloween costumes, and the list goes on and on. I played—but I didn’t play for the part of me that remembered my own childhood, my own love for solitude, for good novels, for crazy friends who made me laugh with their puns and their skits and their love of things political and cultural. These things got pushed away—”disowned”—by that mother/wife voice.

But as hard as a primary voice pushes away a disowned voice, to that same degree the disowned voice will push back somehow. Sometimes it comes out in illness—mental, emotional, or physical. Sometimes it comes out in unexpected outbursts—you know, the “where did that come from?” kind, when a normally placid wife screams at her husband that he never understood her and she just has to get away and she’s leaving, now, and he can just see how it feels to be home alone with these three little kids all day long! That kind. That’s a disowned self pushing back.

According to the Stones, health is restored when the disowned voice is embraced again. This does not mean that the furious mother leaves the family forever and becomes a wild party animal hopping bars and picking up men. Far from it. It means that she listens to the voice that says, “I’m tired I’m lonely for my own kind of friend, my own kind of stimulation I miss my single life, my life as a student …” That’s all. She listens to it. She hears it. She pays attention to it as she pays attention to her own children, and gives it what it needs, in appropriate doses.

If she doesn’t, it will strike back.

And yet most of us don’t know how to listen to our disowned voices—our Shadows. We think we must keep them suppressed—we think they’re evil, that they’ll distract us from our duty, that they’ll [p.135]cause us to be reprimanded, punished, perhaps that if we listen to them we’ll lose everything we’ve worked so hard to have. So we don’t dare hear them, much less give them what they ask for—a little peace, a little time to relax, a little of what gives them juice and joy and nurturing. We don’t realize that we can listen to them and to our primary voices too—that we’re supporting our full, round souls when we listen to both. “There must needs be an opposition in all things”-Nephi’s not saying this just so we can be stoic through hard times. He’s saying that for every primary voice, there’s a disowned voice that needs attention, and that proper listening will help to heal us. Embracing all of our selves is the only way to be whole.

Now one of the problems is that the culture doesn’t support these disowned voices very much. My husband didn’t know what I needed any more than I did. We both thought we were doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing by having three babies in four years and another one not long after that. Neither one of us was particularly happy; neither one of us felt that our life was “fun”; but we felt that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, so we disowned the parts of ourselves that longed for a little free time, a little adult stimulation, a little of what gave us joy before we were ever married.

Yet these Shadows, these disowned voices, were always waiting. And when I finally reached a point of vulnerability that day in my front yard, I knew I had to at least admit that I was overburdened. That my cup was neither full nor overflowing, but constantly draining. That I had no idea how to help myself, because I had three small children who constantly needed me to help them. My Shadow flew up in my face, and I knew why a Prudence might shoot her babies, I knew why Grandma Maynard terminated her tenth pregnancy. I knew why people flee from this thing called motherhood.

Two more statements are necessary here. First: my third and fourth children were born at home, in a remarkably supportive environment with the help of gifted intuitive midwives. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. Holding my babies, gazing at their beauty, and nursing them many months each, are precious memories, precious feelings I would never trade. Three of them are now teenagers and the fourth is in that wonderful can-do-for-himself-but-isn’t-yet-obnoxious [p.136]preteen stage, and I’m proud to be their mother and amazed at the range of their talents and interests. I would never trade motherhood for motherlessness. I’m profoundly grateful for the experience.

Second, however, and this is the heart of my “disclaimer” for “Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue”: I don’t know how to make things easier for young mothers. It’s too easy, it’s too pat to say “Young mothers need time off and should allow it for themselves.” In the first place, none of the young mothers I know in Mormondom have it in them to just leave their children. They worry about childcare, but more than that they believe, as I did, that what they do for their own souls is frivolous, not as important, not as worthwhile, as what they do for their children. I know this guilt. I know the superwoman syndrome. I bought into it wholeheartedly. One of my hopes for our culture is that we can embrace economic and human reality and not require more of any of us than we can honestly bear.

And though I would never tell anyone not to have a child, and I would not recommend abortion to anyone—though these are true statements, still I believe I know why a woman would choose not to have a child, and I honor that voice in each of us. This is why I wrote “Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue”: because there is a dark side to each of us that we must embrace. For if we do not, it will come back to haunt us—in small bursts of discourtesy, in barely controlled bouts of impatience, in growing uncontrollable anger, in downright neglect and abuse—of our children and ourselves. It was important to write about this part of me—of all women, I think—who appeared in my life so strongly and so fiercely shortly after my last child was born; important to write about her in order to know how to deal with her in appropriate and compassionate ways.

I hoped, as I wrote, that I could show not that abortion is good or that child-killing is good, but only how either is possible. I hoped only to honor in myself a voice I would never express in physical action. For me, as it always is, writing parts of myself into fiction was an act of compassionate exorcism. My reward has been not a worry-free, guilt-free motherhood—not at all! It has been a richer, more honest creative life. The Maynards are the focus of the novel I am currently writing, and it has taken me into life more widely than my traditional mother voice would ever let me go. I am grateful to them forever.