Motherhood and Le System “D”


There is no manual for motherhood. For those us of who mother by intuition, instead of being taught by experts or others, we must learn by trial and error. When this motherhood business means flying by the seat of your pants, you might sometimes find yourself operating under “Le System D”*.

Le system D means that necessity is the mother of invention. Key word: mother.

Le system D means at various times learning to live without the things you thought you couldn’t live without. Including sleep. Privacy. Food. Money. Freedom. Wildness. Clothes without holes. New tires for the car. A sink that drains. A support system. A household with two incomes. A household with one income. A basic faith that everything will be ok. A God that doesn’t let bad things happen to well-meaning people. The peace of knowing that tomorrow will be better.

Art: Claire Fontaine


Le system D means that there are 24 hours in a day. It means that the human body has certain requirements, your bank account has certain requirements, and your sanity has certain requirements. It also means that at times, none of those requirements will be fulfilled. You may not be able to squeeze blood from a stone, but you can boil the leftover bones to make into a stock. While everyone else throws away their scraps, you turn them into sustenance.

Le system D means teaching yourself how to cook. Because your family is hungry and you don’t have money to have someone else cook for you.  It means that when you attempt to roast a chicken in the oven, the juices overflow from the roasting pan. (The pan is too small, and not meant for roasting whole chickens.) The glistening fat puddles on the floor of the oven, then inexplicably catches on fire. You are in the house alone with your daughter. When you realize that you don’t own a fire extinguisher, you call 911. Three fire trucks come to put out the fire in your oven, to your embarassment. (From then on whenever you used the expression, “He got fired,” your kid looks up at you with huge eyes and asks, “like the oven got fired?”)

Motherhood is a fire that consumes everything valuable you ever owned. It just burns shit. The flames lick the edges of your being and burn everything superfluous away, until you are clean and black. Black as night, as pure, dark and empty.

You work to buy food to feed her, you work to make the world a better place for her to live in, you get tired, you work through the exhaustion.

When she calls out for you in the middle of the night, you forget everything. Her small hands slip into yours and you lose sight of everything else. All that is left is her, running barefoot in the grass under pink sunset clouds. Her, building you a house made of blocks, too small to live in. Her, asking you to help collect flowers for all people she loves. Everything else can wait.

You suck at everything, all the time. And still you keep the roof over your heads and bellies full and your baby safe. When her sweet little eyelids close at night, she’s smiling. Because she knows she is loved. You did that. Every day the world falls apart. And every morning you’ll save it again.

*Anthony Bourdain taught me about this euphemism in his book, “Nasty Bits.” Mr. Bourdain has never himself been a mother, but he has been a chef. Which is in some ways the same thing.

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