Motherhood and the Dark and Stormy Night
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
If you hear this phrase and immediately picture Snoopy atop his doghouse with a typewriter, then perhaps we are kindred spirits. This line is such a well-known cliche of bad writing that it inspired the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest for the worst literary opening line, but it also opens one of my favorite novels from childhood: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle is perhaps making an inside joke with us right from the start, as she opens with a scene of a teenage girl huddled under a quilt in the midst of a tumultuous storm.
I love this book for its combination of fantasy, science fiction, and a family coming together to stand up against a great evil, but the character who has stayed with me the most is a relatively small player in the drama.
Mrs. Murry, the mother of our heroine and her three brothers, is introduced to us as she joins her daughter and youngest son for a midnight snack of hot cocoa and a liverwurst-cream-cheese sandwich in the kitchen of their 200-year-old home. As a young reader, I was captivated by her character despite my disgust at voluntary liverwurst consumption.
Mrs. Murry is both a renowned microbiologist and a tender, thoughtful mother to her children during a difficult time. She advises her daughter on dealing with bullies and controlling her temper while she keeps a stew warm over a Bunsen burner in her laboratory adjoining the home. Somehow this image became a template of what I hoped for myself later in life.
There was something about Mrs. Murry’s spontaneity and flexibility that deeply appealed to me. Her work was important enough to her that she had set up her own research facility in a spare room, but she also was able to leave it aside to counsel her children during both the everyday dramas of middle school and the larger crisis at the heart of the novel. She is a respected scientist and passionate about her work, while making a home for her family where everyone feels welcome despite their prickly, independent natures.
(I also like to think she shared the same “absent-minded professor” approach to piles of paper that I myself have adopted.)
As a newlywed, I made it very clear to my husband that we would have a large family with several golden retrievers happily wagging their way through our house, but that there would be something like “staff” available to oversee all of this while I dedicated myself to my career as a professor of — well, of being a professor, or something. A few of the details still needed to be worked out.
(As a lifelong cat owner, my understanding of dog behavior was woefully deficient, for one thing.)
In hindsight, I took for granted that things would fall into place for me much as they had up until that point, and that I would balance work and family with ease. (This interview with Megan Stack about domestic workers and issues of class is an insightful look at how the continued “things fall into place for me” life I envisioned would have been far more complex than I understood at the time.)
Actual Life brought many more dark and stormy nights than I anticipated. There have been several crossroads at which I felt that I could not fully serve both my family and my own pursuits, at least not with the resources available to us at the time. It became clear that for me, joy will not be found in the ceaseless pursuit of achieving all of my goals at the same time. Almost twenty years married, I’m probably a permanent resident of the “gig economy,” and there are days when it’s quite draining to try to keep up with all of the different to-do lists for the different aspects of my life.
But on the good days, I’m vaguely like Mrs. Murry, with a crock-pot and laptop instead of a Bunsen burner of stew, and time to sit and listen to my children vent about how “the teacher” did such-and-such today. (I always side with the teacher, at least as far as they know.). Those are the days for which I’m truly grateful.