In the early days of my young motherhood, when my marriage was falling apart and life was an unending cycle of wailing and washing and vomit and sleepless nights, I used to dream of a special room for mothers. In that room, time would stop. There would be endless, quiet hours of darkness and unending cups of warm tea. In that room I would rock, and rest, and recharge against the chaotic and ceaseless cycle of my life.
I was so taken with this image that one night, sitting around a sacred fire with a squealing baby on my lap, I shared it. No sooner had I spoken than a young woman I’d never met before burst out: “I know that place!” She quickly blushed and silenced herself, but after the fire she approached me and she told me of a Korean spa she’d discovered, a place that for a small entrance fee entitled one to soak in warm mugwort baths and sweat in a salt sauna and sip endless barley tea and nap on a warmed jade floor. We set a date, I cashed in numerous babysitting favors, and when the day came I found myself in motherhood mecca.
I had never been to a spa before (I had walked past buildings labeled ‘day spa’, but they were so far out of my realm of experience that I vaguely thought they might have something to do with eyebrows.) My new friend led me into a steaming room filled with laughing naked women. I spent six hours sweating and soaking and scrubbing and sleeping on the jade floor and writing in my journal, and my life was changed forever.
My son remarked today, as we were playing basketball after school, “you know, when you think about it, our bodies are really interesting. I don’t even think about walking, I just walk. I think humans are really the most advanced technology we have!” He’s right. We are. And yet nearly every day, for most of my life, I forgot this. I forgot I even had a body. If I grew aware of my body, it was only to coax more work out of it, or to wish it were shaped differently, or to resent it for hurting. I lived in my mind. My spirituality was a discipline of the mind. My friendships, accomplishments, decisions happened only in my mind. There was one day I recall coming in from 16 hours of farmwork, and someone else had to tell me I was sunburned to the point of bleeding. When I ran a permaculture landscaping business I would routinely work such punishing days that I could barely walk the next morning.
But motherhood changed something in me. I think it changes something in all of us. Giving birth is such a primally REAL experience, so raw and bloody and without civilized artifice. There is no place for the mind, no job for the mind to do. For me, as I imagine it is for many women, giving birth was the first experience I’d ever had of my body taking primacy over my mind. My body had an intelligence, a consciousness of its own; me and yet not-me, not the mind I’d always associated with myself. And then there were two of us.
And once there were two, I could never push my body quite as hard, because I had to hold something in reserve. I knew I might not have the night to sleep through and recharge. At any moment I might be called upon to sprint ten feet, or lift a 60-pound deadweight, or shriek with all my might. I certainly could not afford to ignore the burning sun. And my mind had withdrawn somewhat, exhausted as it was by the neverending demands on my attention and energy. I was truly aware of my body now, and the message she broadcasted was unmistakable: I AM NOT HAPPY.
It was a long and twisting path, neither clear nor easy, but that first dawning awareness of my body’s misery led me here—in devotion to the joy and pleasure of women. We are driven in the interest of the species to procreate–yet, rather than supporting that most central task, we make it as difficult as possible. Women who cannot work due to advanced pregnancy or new motherhood are dependent upon the voluntary aid of others for their financial survival. Hospitalized childbirth is extremely expensive, yet laws are in place to prevent mothers from birthing their children with midwives or alone. And children are welcomed neither at work nor in the vast majority of social interactions; yet there is no ensured place for children to be while adults go about their business. The mother must pay to have them tucked away out of sight so that she can return to work and earn the money to pay the caregivers. She must learn to do all of this while her body is recovering from a Herculean task, while she is deprived of sleep and energy by her children’s constant and natural demands, while she is reeling from the psychological and physical and emotional changes of motherhood.
That can’t possibly be right. Where are the dark quiet rooms? Where are the foot massages, the loving hands that take the baby for a moment and hand the mother a cup of tea? Where is the living allowance, the assurance that baby and mother will not go hungry or homeless? Where are the circles of laughing women, the warm jade floors, the time to write and reflect? Surely any civilized society would provide these things in basic thanks for the endless free labor mothers provide in service to the species?
Apparently not. Whoops. Well, here I am, a finger in the dam, with my joy circles that welcome children so mothers can sip tea and laugh for a while, with my herbal preparations that emphasize the importance of tending to the body’s pleasures. There are no Korean spas where I live now, but I will never forget that feeling of having my body cared for and tended to. I will never forget the peace it conferred on me, the sense of coming home within myself. I plan one day to open a center for women with free onsite childcare, a center with a garden out back and a yoga studio and a place to paint and ongoing group therapy sessions and a dark quiet room where the tea is always on. A place to tend to the body and the soul, where women who have much pay well so that women who have little can come free.
And in the meantime, each morning I rub soft oils into my feet, stretch in sensuous circles, anoint my temples with lavender, sip my warm nettle tea in my dark room. Only then do I emerge blinking to tend the home and children and garden and world. And I wish the same for you–mother or not, brother or sister. I wish the same for you.