When I was in college, I was your proverbial brain in a jar. I read and wrote all day, and grew cold on the sofa of my 80 degree studio apartment, sipping microwaved tea to warm my sedentary bones. Almost all my memories of the time are cerebral: the excitement of defending Milton’s Adam to a classroom of Satan sympathizers, the frustration of my first crack at Nicomachean Ethics.
In fact, the only real exceptions are a.) sitting outside on a warm spring day to do my reading in the cherry blossoms and b.) the terrible tension headaches that plagued me throughout college, especially my underclassman years. (Also the college cafeteria ice cream bar.)
As a stay at home mother now, I struggle to find space for the cerebral, slipping in an audiobook with chores, carving out time for a book club, writing letters to basically anyone who will write me back. On the other hand, though, in a very real sense, my babies have helped me transcend the brain-vat, into the life of the body. I feel healthier, and more whole, though I miss that dear, unbalanced, brainy old life.
This wasn’t a given, going into motherhood. Pregnancy is a series of unpleasant sensations for me, and while I am indeed much more aware of my embodiedness as waves of nausea engulf me, it’s far from a pleasant experience. Give me the life of the mind any day!
So my babies surprised me. Their physical need for me — and, unexpected by me — my physical need for them. So much of my experience of motherhood, so much of my current day to day life, is centered on the body: the press of a soft, marshmallowy cheek against mine; the relief and relaxation of sleepy night nursing; a toddler making my hair “beautiful” while I pray he doesn’t get the hairbrush stuck. Now that I’m no longer cramped in the same tense position, hour upon hour, but instead constantly interrupted, my headaches have faded to the background.
And then there’s the rhythm of housework, of course. A critical eye cast to the texture of the brownie dough, when once I’d only scrounged the cafeteria. The realization that about 60% of housework is moving material objects from one room to the other.
I fall asleep at night more readily, most nights, the soft breathing of my sleeping babies in the rooms beside me. My body is squishier, but also softer, stretched and sore from lifting fifty pounds of progeny all day, from a long nap time on my feet fussing over dinner, from the weight of milk I carry.
I’d failed to realize, back then, that in giving my children their bodies, they’d give me mine.