Another of my favorite movies of all time is Sunshine, the tale of three generations of a Jewish family in Hungary, beginning in the late 19th century on up through the 1960s. Ralph Fiennes brilliantly plays all three generations of the main male character and Jennifer Ehle and her mother, Rosemary Harris, play the other main character, Valerie, over time. The film chronicles the many peaks and valleys that form part of being a (mostly) secular Jew in
at the turn of the 20th century, as well as a wonderful telling of
early 20th century Eastern European development and history. We watch as transforms from a Byzantine-style monarchy to a modern, albeit Communist, state.
When I was teaching as part of my PhD program I showed part of this film
to my students because it clearly showed many of the themes we covered in the
history of 19th and 20th century Hungary Europe. One of the final lines of the film, about the
character of Valerie, is that she alone had mastered the art of breathing
freely in a repressive society.
I think about that line quite often. It has echoed in my head frequently this fall, as I’ve felt a constant pressure in my chest. It is a weight that makes my shoulders hunch over and my diaphragm contract. I find it hard to draw a deep breath most of the time, and have to remind myself to push back against the weight of it. I know it is stress. The fullness in my chest is the stress of two children under age 2, plus an almost-four year old who is developmentally closer to three. It is the weight of getting the two little ones out of the house every day to pick up H from preschool via the bus or cab. It is the stress of getting dinner on the table every night while at least two of the three children scream at me for an hour while I do so. It is the constant neediness of the two little ones, and the constant vigilance required to keep the older one from tearing the house apart. It is the weight of having a colicky baby who wants to nurse 12-16 times a day. It is the absolute sleep deprivation. It is the literal weight of double baby wearing, which I do on a daily basis because it is easier and faster than hauling a stroller or letting the (relatively) new walker explore the city while I run after him with the baby strapped to me. I had a vivid lesson in why this is a bad idea this morning as I let M down to walk a little while as we waited for a holiday lights show to start downtown. He wandered around about 4 feet in front of me for a little while, but soon bored of that and took off beyond the rope barrier. In my haste to catch him before he got lost in the crowd, I tripped getting around the barrier and went down hard. I caught M and dragged him back to where we had been waiting and gave him a few more minutes of wiggle time before giving up and chucking him on my back once more. That brought the total weight of the little people on me close to 40 pounds. The weight is well distributed between the two ERGOs, and most of it goes down to my hips like a hiking backpack, but it is still a lot of weight to lug around day after day. There is the stress of the bedtime routine, when my husband and I chase down both boys and literally wrestle them into pajamas night after night while E screams her head off. (Or, alternately, I sit in a chair and nurse E for the nth time that day while my husband does the wrestling and I listen to the chaos from the other room, unable to do a single thing about it). It is having more children than hands. Sometimes I feel as though I never fully rid myself of that extra weight at the end of the day, and climb into bed bowed low by the fullness of my days.
Today I went to pick up my older son from preschool without the other two children, a rarity for me. H got out at 1:00 and I had my sitter for the afternoon. As I walked down the sunny street with a cold wind blowing at my back, I remembered the reasons I like living in the city—the hustle and bustle of the streets, the ease of movement, and the little corner shops and restaurants. I looked up as I walked and breathed deeply of the cool air, feeling the rush fill my lungs, and the pressure in my chest eased just a little. Temporarily free of the physical burden of motherhood, I was able to remind myself that these years are fleeting, and some day soon, I will be able to take a deep breath without having their constant need grinding against me. But those years are still in the future, and I can’t live into them now; I have to learn how to breathe freely in this present moment. And so I will remind myself to look up more often, and to take a deep breath, even as I shoulder the forty pound burden of my days.