Growing up a stone’s throw from a convent (and the school in which the sisters taught me), my formative years were shaped by three principal models of womanhood: nuns, mothers, and old maids. The latter were heavily in the minority and viewed with a skeptical eye—an object of both empathy and, I’ll wager, reluctant envy.
At some stage in her development, a girl begins to envision the woman she will become, and I found myself, in weighing the merits of each, leaning toward the latter two. Living within arm’s reach of the convent chapel, and being a frequent interloper, I grew to appreciate the fertile ground of silent contemplation in which one may birth a deep and vital connection not only to one’s inner self but to the seat of divinity that abides at its depths. In tandem, the merits of being beholden to no man, be it partner or pontiff, weren’t lost on me, either.
Sunday was Mother’s Day in Ireland, and in a conversation with mine, she expressed concern about a lack of “balance” in my life (my term, not hers). Today is St. Patrick’s Day, marking not just a global celebration of the fifth century Christian missionary reputed to have driven the “serpent” of druidism from Ireland, an arguably dubious distinction, and the birthday of a dear friend (happy birthday, SB!), it also marks the one-year anniversary of the suicide of a woman whose failure to become a mother drove her to the ultimate depth of despair. L’Wren Scott was a celebrated model, stylist, muse, designer, friend, girlfriend (of rock legend Mick Jagger), stepmother (to his children) and step grandmother (to theirs). By all appearances, she had it all. But, days before her fiftieth birthday, she clearly felt deeply that she didn’t.
I used to ask my mother what she dreamed of becoming when she was a little girl, and she’d tell me that dreaming was a luxury few women of her generation could afford. We really didn’t have much expectation of life, she’d abashedly admit. However, as Charles Dickens’ Pip and Estella discovered, great expectations come with a great price—the more one has to gain, the more one has to lose. In the context of women like L’Wren, it may mean ending up neither fiercely married to independence and success, nor successfully wed to matrimonial and familial bliss.
Somehow, in the process of trying to be, do and have it all, our expectations—and the subsequent weight of “failure” to deliver on them—have become gargantuan. Poet, author, and philosopher David Whyte speaks of our seemingly disparate life goals in terms of our relationships to Work, Other, and Self. In his book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship—recently brought to my attention by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings—Whyte writes, “Human beings are creatures of belonging…This sense of belonging…is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people (particularly, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves.”
“We can call these three separate commitments marriages,” writes Whyte, “because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and…they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously. To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.”
“We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.
“Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself. It is a place full of powerful undercurrents, a place to find our selves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.”
I have, at times, been all but submerged because I neglected to nurture that which my childhood, chapel-dwelling self identified as the riverbed of my existence: a healthy marriage to my self.
“Neglecting this internal marriage,” writes Whyte, “we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Our primordial relationship, however, is often the one least tended to. For women in particular, under pressure to check off all the boxes before her biological clock expires, life appears to require a race to the finish line. Work? Check. Marriage/Family? Check. Self? Who has time?
Yet, most of us are aware we’re neglecting something very significant, and this knowledge often gnaws at us, and our attempts to address the “imbalance” only add to the pressure. “Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments,” Whyte writes. “In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.”
The solution, he says, is to strive not for balance between all three, but for a marriage of all three. We need look no further for a role model of organic multi-tasking than Mother Nature. She constantly moves through periods of creation and destruction. She wears many hats—Maiden (youth), Mother (fertility) and Crone (wisdom), epitomized by the Triple Goddess symbol of the waxing, full, and waning moon. She fears not the passage of time, prizing the wisdom of the Crone as much as the ripeness of the Mother. She fears not death; she welcomes it as a prelude to life. Does Mother Nature weep for her winter-ravaged barrenness, or does she stand tall and proud, a stripped, shivering sentinel to the deep inner work of birthing oneself anew?
What if we marry ourselves to all three aspects of the self, and in all her guises—be it Maiden, Mother, and Crone or Nun, Mother, and Old Maid? What if, instead of clinging to childhood perceptions and concrete goals with clenched fists, we allow life redefine, reinvigorate and recreate our selves anew with every breath? What if we wed ourselves to a level of compassion equal to if not greater than our expectations? What if, rather than hanging our hopes—and our self-esteem—on the fresh bloom of youth, digging our heels in to protest the onset of winter, we instead dig deep and await that moment when, to drink from the well of Shakespeare, “the winter of our discontent [is] made glorious summer?”
I, for one, would have welcomed L’Wren’s next act.
Perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.
p.s. Happy St. Patrick’s & Mother’s Day to one of the strongest women I know, named for an ancient Irish queen, and nurturer of seven sublime human beings