Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
When the Bough Breaks

No comments

Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

The bough breaks? The baby falls? Why do we sing such things to our infants? It strikes me as downright sadistic to gaze into my baby's eyes and sing a sweet, lilting little tune predicting his demise. I was in too much of a sleep-deprived haze with our first son to get worked up about this lullaby. But our second son is a better sleeper. I'm awake enough to become obsessed.

I ask everyone I see about the lullaby, but no one knows. A bit of web research finds lots of people asking the same questions I'm asking, but reveals few answers. Finally I learn that "Rock-a-Bye Baby" is an American lullaby first written down in the late 1700s, and based on the Native American practice of hanging baby cradles in the low branches of trees. So, how does this help us understand the lyrics? Is it simply a warning not to use the high branches? Is it a white man's mocking of Indian practices?

The most appealing theory I've heard so far -- even though I doubt this is the intended meaning -- is that it is a metaphor: we are the tree, so we must be strong and not break, for if we break, our children will fall. Of course children fall -- with or without us -- but it would be nice if we could feel certain we hadn't set them up for the hurt.

And so I try on this idea of being the strong tree for my children. But I remember breaking all too well. The day that haunts me is one where I suddenly find myself throwing my three-year-old son into his room, slamming the door shut and holding it closed while he screams and tugs at the doorknob. You are a bad mama! I grip the knob more tightly, lean my body weight back to keep the door shut. Tears run down my face, my heart pounds, my son rages behind the door. I hate you! How to get out of this? Thoughts careen wildly. The hallway closet, the intake air vent, the water stain on the wood floor refuse to offer up any answers. Hate you, hate you, hate you. His screeches hit a higher register, tinged with panic. Let me out! Still, I can't seem to let go. Only when he is reduced to whimpering do I open the door. He lays crumpled on the floor. I kneel down, pull him onto my lap, stroke his hair and murmur until finally he falls asleep. Then I close my eyes and slump against the wall. This is not the kind of parent I intended to be.

Most of my mothering friends have shared similar stories of their own with me -- not a request for advice, but a confession, a plea for understanding and forgiveness. We break. We break up, we break down, we break apart. (When the bough breaks, not if it breaks.) Most of us pull ourselves together again, but we live with the damage -- a fracture line, a bone chip, a festering wound, a scar -- damage to ourselves. This damage is subsumed by the guilt and fear that we may have damaged our children. In the lullaby there is no doubt the bough will break, no question about why it breaks, no concern for the tree. The tree will survive, we seem to assume, and I suppose that usually it does; wounds heal, new branches grow. Trees are made to withstand the vagaries of wind and weather. So perhaps it is right that all care is for the baby. Still, I wish that someone somewhere would ask: how is the tree?


I grew up with the belief that motherhood was servitude, and I wanted no part of it. When at last in my late 30's I decided I wanted a baby, I soon came to realize that getting pregnant would be a project. As my husband and I timed our sex and counted days, as getting pregnant moved from a project to an obsession, part of me still grappled with doubt. As much as I wanted a baby, I felt at risk. I didn't know who I would become once I had a child. When we finally achieved a sustained pregnancy, I put away the fertility books and pulled out the maternity books. But these "what to expect" books seemed to address a more chipper, fact-oriented type of woman, one concerned with concrete, physical phenomenon -- issues of the body more than the psyche. Then I found Louise Erdrich's memoir of early motherhood, The Blue Jay's Dance.

Erdrich presents early motherhood as a fragmented, ambivalent time, a time of love, but also of loneliness and endless demands by baby. In many ways, she affirmed my worst fears, talking of a "state of tragic confusion" and "being swallowed alive." Suicide comes up more than once. This made me trust her.

Late in the book, at a time when Erdrich is not only raising an infant but also struggling with her difficult teenage children, she suffers the loss of two grandparents in close succession. As she stares out her study window one day, numb with despair, she sees a blue jay get knocked to the ground by a hawk. The jay jumps up, squawking and prancing like a trash-talking boxer despite the hawk's impossibly greater size and power. This tactic works. The hawk looks befuddled, then flies off and leaves the jay to live for another day. Erdrich decides she must take this blue jay as a role model: As a parent, she must fight back against the impossibly large challenges life throws at her in order to protect her child and teach her how to survive in the world. She says:

Past the gray moralizing and the fierce Roman Catholic embrace of suffering and fate that so often clouds the subject of suicide there is the blue jay's dance. . . . that manic, successful jig -- cocky, exuberant, entirely a bluff, a joke. That dance makes me clench down hard on life. . . . I must dance for her. I must be the one to dip and twirl in the cold glare and I must teach her, as she grows, the unlikely steps. (195/196)

Erdrich didn't say parenting was easy, but she made it sound like something other than servitude, something that made you stronger and maybe bolder. I can't say I've ever felt like a dancing blue jay, but Erdrich gave me the courage to move into motherhood with less fear.

When our second child was on his way, one of the books that sustained me was Lia Purpura's memoir Increase a slim book of lyrical journal entries written during her pregnancy and the birth year of her only child. Purpura's title, Increase, symbolizes the dominant note of her memoir: a happy sense of expansion as she brings a new life into the world. Her love for her baby enlarges her heart and allows her to love her husband and her world even more. But the risk of painful loss increases as well. Purpura repeatedly returns to her sense that even as she and her son are forming and deepening their bond, he is also growing away from her. The impending, inevitable, greater losses to come loom large in her mind; this angst suffuses her writing.

Very early in her pregnancy she and her husband hear "a rustling up from the sewer." It is a raccoon coming out before dark:

It walked in the mincing, menacing way on its small feet, pacing and loping in front of the sewer, mounting the curb, crossing the street and crossing again, back and forth like a leopard in a cage; but it was the noise it made . . . a strange chuckling and hissing admixture, like a large bird's throaty click and then a higher-pitched warm-blooded quaver. . . . I was certain that . . . something was wrong. I knew that nothing could be more wrong than a young one missing. That this was a mother pacing and grieving. There could be no match for the fear, for the rage, which brought her out into the light, beside herself with remorse, which looks, I could see now, everything like craziness or disease. (5/6)

A mother's fear, rage, and remorse can be so intense as to mimic craziness. "Nothing could be more wrong than a young one missing."

While Erdrich's feisty blue jay illustrates the survival motif of her book, Purpura's raccoon comes to symbolize her core issue: the two-sided coin of mother love and mother loss. Both animals' behaviors capture a sense of fear and desperation. If one is more about a panicky defense against a turbulent world and the other about helpless rage, both show us the flip side of love, the prospect of pain that hovers on the edge of tenderness.


I used to worry obsessively about our baby Patrick dying, but as he, and now Zachary, get sturdier, I see that in all likelihood, as is proper, I will go first. Maybe sooner than I would like, for I am getting old. I have my mother's crinkling face, my grandmother's crepe-paper hands. In the wrong light the skin on my neck looks ringed like a tree trunk, marking age. This year I will turn 50 -- the age that my father was when he died.

That year, I came home from Minneapolis to find my father gaunt and stubble-jawed in a hospital bed. His eyes had always been blue, I suppose, but that day they were strikingly lighter and brighter than they had ever seemed before. Perhaps they had grown more intense as he faced his impending death. I could not stop looking at those eyes: a light, brilliant blue, almost florescent, the blue of scallops sitting silent on the ocean bottom, watching me. On my one and only scalloping trip, I learned to look not for the shells, which blended perfectly with the sand, but for those eyes. Pinpoints of blue gave them away, one tiny gleaming eye on each scalloped curve of shell. I dove toward them and easily scooped them up, their bodies helpless. They did not anticipate their capture, seemed unprepared for death, just as I was unprepared for my friend's order that I rip the strand of jeweled eyes off each and every scallop I had collected.

I was 21 when my father died, but if I die at the same age as my father did, Patrick would be only 9 years old at my death. Zachary would be 3. When I catch myself watching my sons and imagining the black hole my absence would create in their lives, I remind myself that the women in my family are long lived. My grandmothers outlived two husbands apiece, and my mother is going strong at age 75, hiking the Himalayas and planning to take Patrick kayaking. And yet, I can't help thinking, What if? Losing a parent hurt enough at age 21; what would it feel like at age 9? At 3? My throat constricts so tightly it hurts to swallow. I splash water on my face to chase away the image of my bereft sons. In the mirror I see my eyes watery with uncried tears; they are the same brilliant blue as my father's.

Must I put a scallop alongside the blue jay and the raccoon? So passive, so plain, so globular. I would prefer to align with a cheetah, sleek and fast. I would like to feel my haunches gather under me and spring forward, all-powerful as I run down prey to feed my young. And yet, the image of the watching eye feels right. Intensity, insight, the need to look, even if it means you will suffer more and sooner; the inability, finally, to stop death; the reality that it will come to you -- all this rings true. Perhaps I could read into those eyes the ability to gaze unblinkingly at the face of destiny, without flinching, with desire to know and understand.

There is something to be said for solidity, for simply, dependably being there; something valuable in watching closely, taking in what my children have to show me, and doing them the honor of knowing who they are. And perhaps facing sadly how often there will be little I can do to protect them.

Which brings me full circle, back to the breaking branches of the not entirely sturdy tree that I have always been, if the truth be told, both before and after motherhood. Some days I would tell you that I'm stronger, more deeply rooted than I was before children. I break less often. I am close to my goal of being solid and dependable. Then there are the other days.

Isn't this true for all of us? Blue jay, raccoon, scallop, tree -- feisty, crazed, watchful, rooted -- whatever our controlling metaphor, sooner or later we remember we have needs separate from and often constricted by our young children. Social, professional, and spiritual desires all make an appearance, but for writers the demand that seems both the most persistent and the hardest to meet is the demand for time and psychological space to write.

When Purpura catches another glimpse of the raccoon, she wants nothing more than to write about it, and she knows she could . . . if it weren't for baby:

And here I want so much to stretch into description -- give the bulk of the animal wedged into the tree's dark crook, the color of its mask, not so black in daylight, more a deepening gray, almost a wetness splashed over the face, but I'm waiting for Joseph to wake up. The fussing I hear means any minute, or it means an hour from now he'll rise and I feel the space around my musing contract, cinch tighter with each moment like a puddle drying, and I'm daunted by the futility of entering the rich emptiness, the place of slow faith, where idea comes late, disguised as afterthought or near dismissal, . . .I will need to be more cunning. (61)

Indeed. More cunning.

Erdrich feels a similar conflict. In The Blue Jay's Dance, she writes of a time close to baby's one-year mark:

I've just begun a thought, I'm writing my way in, when she laughs herself awake and bolts up, expectant, her grin wide, her eyes wild and magnetic, an electricity of hope rising off her . . . Her smile is so touching so alight. I put my head down on my desk and within the dark cave of my hands a shout gathers. I'm at the moment. I will turn to her and lay aside this story, but with loss. I will play with her but part of me won't be there. . . . I'm torn between wanting to be with her always and needing to be -- through writing and through concentration -- who I am. (215)

Is this sense of being fundamentally changed, of not being able to be who we truly are, inherent to parenting, or at least early parenting? When I was pregnant with Patrick my grandmother sent me a pretty little card with the comforting words, "You will do everything you used to do, just a little less of it." I was surprised and pleased that she recognized my unspoken concern; it told me that perhaps she herself had had similar qualms about entering motherhood. And yet, as a mother, I see she was only partially correct. When Patrick was an infant I tried to write when he napped, but like Purpura, knowing that he might wake at any moment changed the kind of writing I could do, and like Erdrich, I felt acutely that material was lost with each interruption. Only when Patrick was older, and I had the resources for the occasional babysitter, did I feel I'd returned to my writing self -- yet I tried like mad to become the mother of another infant. Now he is here and I am not sure what will happen to my writing life.

Recently I found an article about Erdrich published in 2001, six years after The Blue Jay's Dance was published. She is a 46 year-old mother raising three teenage girls ages 12 to 17, and. . . a new infant. She sits in a comfortable chair with her three-month-old daughter Azure strapped to her chest as she chats with a reporter. She is all peace and equilibrium. She explains why she chose to have another child: "It's so deeply biological, and it's so limbic-brain oriented. I love being a mother. I have a comfort level with a certain chaos in my life." (Time, April 9, 2001.) What happened to the talk of manic jigs, being swallowed alive, feeling torn between writing and mothering? Did she forget? Perhaps so. I'd like to think this equanimity is in part the power of the older mother.

By 2003 Erdrich is back to writing non-fiction, this time a memoir about traveling with her eighteen-month-old infant and the baby's father. Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country isn't about the angst of motherhood; instead it focuses on issues of heritage, land, and books. Perhaps she has made peace between her writing and mothering selves at last.

As I juggle the myriad needs of my growing family, I hold onto the Time image of Erdrich. I make a mental shrine of a serene Louise, babe in arm, pen in hand, and carry it with me always. When I can -- if Patrick is in school, if Zachary goes down for a nap, if laundry and e-mail don't derail me -- I start writing.

Ann Whitfield Powers lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two sons, Patrick, age 9 and Zachary, age 3. She holds an MFA and has been published in the Oregon Literary Review, Camas, and the Miami Herald, and has a piece forthcoming in Brain, Child. She is currently working on a memoir, tentatively titled Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?

More from

Comments are now closed for this piece.