Years ago I read a lot of Freud in The British Library in London. Though it wasn’t easy reading I kept on with it because Freud explained things about life that no-one else had managed to explain to me. Towards the end of his career, in Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote something that I immediately copied into my notebook. He wrote that while we can’t be responsible for our happiness, it being too dependent on things outside our control, ultimately we were responsible for our experiences of satisfaction. At that time in my life, not yet thirty, Freud’s idea seemed wonderfully straightforward. Of course it was up to me to discover what I found personally satisfying, and to bring this about in my life.
But as the years passed this became less straightforward. Once I had a family it became that much harder to feel anything as simple as personal satisfaction. Much of the time I felt happy, and I often felt content, but satisfaction – that deep feeling of all being well, of a job well done, a feeling as real as sating hunger – often eluded me. There were flashes, when what I wanted and what I had came together. But not as many as I’d have liked.
Friends without children shook their heads. Why can’t you just leave your family aside, they’d say, and do your own thing once in a while? On paper the answer was yes. Of course I could do those things that I found personally satisfying, even while being bound up with family. But in practice I struggled to – even now that my kids are teenagers. And especially, if I’m really honest, on the weekend.
Why is it that I put my family’s well-being before my own? Sometimes it’s if I’m more alive to my family’s demands for satisfaction than I am to my own. When supper is late, or I forget something important, I become almost afraid of my family’s frustration with me. My own frustration I can deal with, but not theirs. Do I fear they’ll fall apart if I’m not around to catch them? Do I fear the loss of their love if it turns out they don’t need me? Will they fall into a primordial soup if I focus my attention away from them? Is my skin really so thin that I can’t focus on what makes my spirit sing without being distracted by the needs of the people I love most?
Well, yes, sheepishly yes. I do fear all these things. Like it or not, I feel that I’m the person who holds things together in my family. Besides, and here’s the paradox, I like helping make my the lives of my family more possible. I like seeing their spirits sing and feeling that I’ve played a small part in this. I like boosting their confidence enough for them to seek their own satisfactions, just as my parents once did for me.
And yet like so many mothers, I struggle to carve out time to do things – a bit of sewing here and there – that I find personally satisfying. Things that aren’t work and aren’t family either. I’ve now been a mother for so long that it can feel counter-intuitive to put myself first, to say to myself that I’ve done enough magic for others and need to keep back some for myself. Even though I also know that ultimately this is the biggest favour that I can do for the people I love most.