Of Sacrifice and Blessing
Brooke Berman on the ongoing meditation of mothers
“Hotel Room” by Edward Hopper
I am writing this from a plane to Aspen, on my way to premiere my first film, a digital short, at a festival. It is a dream come true. And yet I spent the morning in tears because in pursuing this dream, I had to leave my three year-old son behind.
Yes, it is true that theoretically my husband and young son could have joined me in this Aspen adventure. But my husband, also a writer, is on deadline, and our boy doesn’t travel so well – not yet. But more to the point, could I have done my work – been available for screenings, networking and nightly cocktails with the other filmmakers – if my son were in tow? We’ll never know. Because he’s not here.
This is not the first time I’ve left my child with his dad to pursue work. But it is, for some reason I don’t yet understand, the most painful. Whereas in the past, I could console myself, this time I’m a wreck.
It sucks to leave a child. And it doesn’t get easier; it gets harder. At least when he was a baby, I could console myself by making a book for him (“Mama’s Trip” or “Mama Goes to New York”) and telling myself that it was harder on me than on him. (Ha!) But this time, there is no consolation. He’s big enough to ask where I am and to have feelings and opinions about my absence. And with each day, I fall more and more deeply in love with him and with the family the three of us have created. I don’t wonder that Hannah waited as long as she possibly could before taking her child to the temple, the destiny to which he’d been promised.
It is a deep, deep gut-wrenching feeling to walk through the world without one’s child. I am only gone for five days – the most I’ve ever been gone is a week – but I prepared like mad. Sometimes I make him picture books illustrating the business trip. This time, I made up a song called “Mommies Always Come Back”. ( We sang it on the way to preschool this morning and he asked, “Where’s your mommy?” which led us into a whole other complicated terrain as my mother died in 2007 and won’t be coming back any time soon.) When I dropped him off at his classroom and said goodbye, he hugged me tightly and said, “Goodbye, Mommy,” – I felt like my insides were about to fall out. I went home and sobbed.
But that isn’t the whole story. Last summer, I missed the workshop of one of my plays out of town because of a family emergency. I had already gotten the airline ticket, and we were prepared to travel as a family when I had to call the theater and cancel. It was the first time that something like this had ever happened, the first time I didn’t show up. And frankly, it was a real blow. But the situation at home was more important and more immediate, and I made a choice that I’m proud of. My 95 year-old Grandma Ida, for whom these things are very black and white, berated me for even considering taking the trip. She said “Your family always comes first.”
But lately I don’t think the real question is about who comes first – I think it’s about who comes first at what time. And it’s an ongoing negotiation. An ongoing meditation. An ongoing struggle.
But I think this struggle is valuable.
When I chose to stay with my family rather than fly to the new play lab, a close friend of mine expressed dismay. She felt that my behavior would hurt me professionally and engender resentment in my marriage. She was wrong. In fact, the play in question was produced six months later (by a different theater) and my commitment to my family brought a greater sense of peace rather than some kind of boiling resentment.
But you can’t ever know these things in advance. Indeed, I’m sure it is possible that when a great deal of sacrifices is made in one direction only, resentment does grow. In my case, it was the opposite. I came through our family’s crisis with more compassion and with a deepened and still-deepening sense of commitment to my husband and son.
These things are not easy. But who said they would be? Children try to “have it all”. Children polarize “opting out” and “leaning in.” Adults live with ambivalence. Adults make choices. Adults negotiate and find peace with and through conflicting feelings and needs. Mothers become masters at all of the above. We are constantly making tough choices and necessary sacrifices.
Being a mother has slowed me down. While I’m still getting my work “out there” – plays produced, this film made and screened– I’m not in the world the way I used to be. I have very limited time, the 21 hours a week that he’s in school, and an increased awareness of what each hour away from him costs.
And yet, I am ridiculously grateful to be my son’s mother and to be my husband’s wife. And I think the pain involved when I choose – in either direction – keeps me honest and mindful. While I will gladly put their needs before all else, the truth is no one is forcing me to do so.
Like Hannah, I think we are always giving our children back to the Infinite Universe, to the particular that each has come here to fulfill. We are always living in both sacrifice and blessing. We just get to hold on longer than she did.