The Un-Sentimentality of Love

Motherhood is a Bear, Really

This one was written by Caroline Siegrist:

When my son was a young toddler, I completely lost my patience for Lightning McQueen. I couldn’t stand any more of Owen Wilson’s voice or the upbeat Americana driving montages, so I turned on a nature program about a mother polar bear and her cubs. I was sure it would be as adorable and life-affirming as it was fascinating.

But a few minutes into the show, I realized the bears’ lives weren’t as sentimental as the Christmas cards made them seem. A mother bear was helping guide her young cubs to the arctic before the winter ice melted. If they didn’t make it, they’d be stranded without food. The bear who’d fathered the cubs had long vanished, and now in addition to feeding them, she had to protect the young from other male bears, who wanted to kill the offspring and re-impregnate the mom with their DNA.

And I thought my husband was bad for leaving dishes in the sink.

In one scene, the mother bear stalked a large seal with consummate patience. When she was almost ready to pounce, one of her cubs jumped out of his assigned hiding spot, skittered across the ice on his bottom, and startled the seal — and the bears’ potential sustenance — away.

I felt a sharp pang of familiarity.

I’d thought that many of the difficulties of motherhood were societal. If we just had better maternity leave or subsidized childcare, if families weren’t so isolated. But this nature documentary made me wonder if maybe motherhood, no matter the circumstances, is always kind of — forgive the pun — a bear.

When Jackson was a baby, I’d wanted to write a book about motherhood as spiritual discipline. I wanted to help mothers find the meaning in their menial tasks. Now, with two more years of parenting experience and another baby under my belt, I have no interest in sentimentalizing motherhood.

It’s spring in Nashville, and there is a bird’s nest in our Bradford pear tree, the one we keep meaning to cut down. I’ve noticed the mother bird sitting there for weeks, and even though I’ve never seen the eggs, I know they’re there. As I watch cold rain fall for hours and hours one day, I see her hovering over the nest to shelter her babies.

I know that many fledglings don’t survive, even after all this careful tending. Too many snakes, crows, cats, and dogs. I know that many birds will lay multiple rounds of eggs because the survival rate is so low.

Survival drives a hard bargain, and the extravagant devotion of motherhood does not stand up to cost-benefit analysis. So why do we insist on sentimentalizing motherhood?

Maybe we want to believe this kind of unswerving, all-sacrificial love is out there for us. When I was childless in my early 20s, I remember an older woman telling me about her adult daughter’s car wreck.

“I heard one word, ‘Mama,’ and I was on my way at 2 in the morning,” she said with a twang.

The story put a lump in my throat, but of course, I was identifying with the daughter. The one who was rescued by her mother’s vigilance, by her inability to turn off her phone at night. But how many nights had the mother lost sleep, fearing this call?

I want to believe in the steadfast love that shelters me from the pouring rain. I’d just rather be the recipient.

I know my own mother worries about me as the weeks of quarantine drag on. She cannot be here to help with my children, so she sends me treats: a bouquet of Easter flowers, a slew of craft kits, and most extravagantly, an espresso machine.

We are four weeks into the quarantine now, and three a.m. finds me sitting cross-legged in a bathrobe on the floor. I am pinching the bridge of my son’s nose to stop a torrential bleed. Splatters of red cover my hand and arm and the white fluffy fabric of my robe as he cries and wriggles.

“Shhh,” I whisper. “You’ll wake up baby.”

He wails louder.

I try another tactic. “Do you want to hear a story?”

Almost imperceptibly, he nods.

“Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath. “This is the story of Rosalind,” I search my sleep-addled brain, “the lonely chicken nugget.”

He relaxes. He tunes in.

I wake groggy and grumpy the next morning, half stumbling into our shabby little kitchen, the one we almost had enough money to remodel before the pandemic came. I turn on my espresso maker, pour milk into the frother, stare at a little bowl of dyed Easter eggs my son made.

I remember that we’re all debtors to the extravagant, costly, unsentimental love that gave itself up on the cross. Defaulted on our loans from the beginning, hopelessly in the hole. I pour my son a bowl of cereal and move my daughter to my hip. I make another late payment to the love that first loved me.

Caroline Siegrist is a writer based in Nashville, TN. She blogs regularly at Spilled Milk.

Featured image: 0x010C


5 responses to “The Un-Sentimentality of Love”

  1. Ginger says:

    This is so precious. Thank you!

  2. Misty says:

    Solidarity, mama!

  3. Michelle says:

    Lovely article.

  4. margaret says:

    Caroline I am reminded again how well you write ,not only communicating your ideas but feelings as well

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.