Diaries are an ongoing series of regular contributions by women working in different creative mediums. They may explore themes of motherhood, womanhood, or just life.
I had natural childbirths for all three of my children— no pain medication, no doctors. Dashiell was born at a birthing center, because I didn’t know home birth was an option, and the girls were both born at home. Labor wasn’t easy for me. It was extremely painful— not all women experience pain, but I did. It was the kind of pain that made me feel like I was going to die. I was miserable when I was in labor and hated every second of it. When I was in my darkest hour, I had to dig deep to find a source of strength, and I always came back to the cave mama.
The cave mama has given me so much strength in motherhood. Whenever I’m not entirely sure how to respond to a situation, I ask myself, What would the cave mama do? What would a mama with the most limited resources a human being could have do in order to survive?
My child is systematically refusing to eat his vegetables tonight, and I want to scream at him and shove them down his throat. What would the cave mama do? She would shrug her shoulders and eat them herself, because food is scarce and she’ll need all her strength to get through the day parenting this defiant little cave toddler. She probably needs those peas more than he does, so no, she wouldn’t squabble with her cave toddler over a handful of peas, she would snatch his plate from under his nose, consider it his loss, and scarf those peas right down herself.
My child wants to climb a tree or a fence or a rock wall that looks perilous. Should I just keep her grounded next to me where she is safe? What would the cave mama do? The cave mama would send her child up that tree because that cave baby will never learn how to climb standing in her shadow, and it’s not safest in her shadow when there is a pack of wolves chasing her down, it’s safest up a tree. But if the cave mama has her hands full, she won’t be able to hoist her cave girl up that tree, so that cave daughter better learn how to climb.
My baby is coming into my bed in the middle of the cold night. What would the cave mama do? The cave mama would wrap her hairy cave mama arms around her cave baby and pull him in closer to her, keep him warm. She knows he won’t be in the cave his whole life because he will have his own cave one day and won’t have her body to snuggle into, so the cave mama welcomes the occasional nighttime visit from her cave baby. But she doesn’t sleep very well with a squirmy cave baby in her bed, so she also teaches her cave baby that it’s important that she get her sleep too, so she can be strong and alert to care for her cave brood the next day. Most nights the cave baby learns to tolerate the cold or the silence because that’s an important lesson too.
Parenting for me has never been black and white. Cave mamas thrive in the grey area. Many mothers I know need strict guidelines to function. They gobble up books, follow instructions on sleep training to the letter, obsess over ounces of milk and bathing rituals. It feels safe inside those clear boundaries. I recently learned that there is a product you can buy that tells you if the water temperature is safe for a baby. The cave mama did not have access to a thermometer, but she has a hand, and her hand can measure temperature quite well, the same hand that feeds her baby, holds her baby, wipes away her baby’s tears. That hand is qualified to decide if the water temperature is safe. Many mothers today lack confidence in themselves. Society has taken away their power by encouraging them to look outside rather than within to judge what’s best for their babies. Instincts have been silenced, and in their place, we have advertisements under the guise of medical or scientific advice urging parents to follow a path that goes against human nature. Products and books and blogs tell them how to care for their child, how to feed their child, how to dress their child or put their child to bed.
The cave mama did not worry about Pinterest, with its endlessly impossible snack ideas. She handed her cave babies a sharp rock and a stick and taught them how to whittle and these skills proved to be fruitful later. My kids have had a couple near emergency room visits due to poorly aligned knives, but now they know how sharp an edge is and how soft their skin is and they also know how to cut— and cutting is useful forever. For me, the layers of noise that surround the “mom culture” fall on deaf ears. We had three children back to back, and throughout those years I never fully stepped away from my work, so I didn’t have time to read books or blogs. Research in general has always felt tedious to me. I wasn’t going to have a natural birth because a doctor had determined that it would solidify the bond between mother and child and I wasn’t going to breastfeed our children because somebody had dedicated an entire book to how it would prevent childhood obesity. I was going to have a natural birth and breastfeed our children because intuitively it was the only way I could think of being a mother. It was a personal choice, an innate feeling. It felt like the best choice for me and my body and the children coming out of it. I suspect the cave mama had the same instinct, although the cave mama didn’t have the choice to take an epidural or buy formula at the local grocery store, but thanks to the cave mama we are here today. She must have done something right, because the human species prevailed.
Many mothers argue that taking medication during birth, or using a battery-powered rocker to put your child to sleep, or wrapping your baby in a stuffed sumo outfit so it doesn’t roll over in its cribs, that these things have created choice and isn’t choice freedom and isn’t choice empowering. I disagree. I think these products and ideas and medications have created confusion and anxiety and have removed choice. Instead of drowning in advice from society, I am listening to my children and watching my children and I know what they are capable of and I trust that. The way they climb horrifies most adults around me, but the way they swim is impressive. Zuzu, just two years old, can swim half the distance of your average backyard pool alone. She understands that the only thing keeping her afloat is her own strength, so she walks along the deck to the middle of the pool, jumps in and swims to the ladder. I’ve never purchased swimmies that attach to the arms of toddlers. They give children a false sense of confidence in water and there’s very little more dangerous to a child than deep water, so I never wanted my child to think, under any circumstances, that anything other than her own body is enough to keep her afloat. If you can’t stay above water, you should not be in that water. If you can’t climb a tree, you should not be in that tree. If you can’t cut that peach without cutting yourself, you shouldn’t be holding a knife. The only way to know this about yourself is to experience it. You cannot show your child what it feels like to sink or bleed or choke. They must bleed or choke to know.
Years ago, before I had children, I was producing a celebrity makeover show and we were building a trellis for one of the families appearing in the series. I was consulting with the wife and asked her what flowers she would like planted around the trellis. I suggested roses. She looked at me horrified, “I have children!” She exclaimed, “I can’t have roses on my property!” I was so confused, “Why not?” I said. “Because they’ll get pricked by the thorns.” The cave mama in me knew that was the very reason she should have roses on her trellis, but I wasn’t a mother yet and this was not my home, so I smiled and said, “Of course.” And she told me that when I was a mother someday I would understand and I smiled again and said, “Of course.” I’m a mother now, and if I had a yard I would plant a rose garden and my kids would figure it out.