If you asked other people the worst thing I do as a parent, you’d get a myriad of replies. I yell too much or too loudly. I don’t discipline my son enough, or at least not fast enough. I let him eat too many sugary things. But if you asked me right now, I’d say that despite all those complaints and the million smaller ones that come to nag at me from my mind and heart, the worst thing I’m currently doing is leaving him alone at night with Mama.
The name was inspired by Louise Bourgeois’ enormous spider sculptures. You may have seen one in a gallery or exhibit, or in one of the many outdoor spaces around the world where they’re installed. Like me, you may have stood (uneasily) under one, striking a jokingly terrified pose for a picture.
Bourgeois’ title had a specific and touching significance for her, but I often wonder if she’d heard about something that I frequently ponder: the spider is a Jungian archetype related to motherhood.
I guess there are people out there (maybe including Louise Bourgeois) for whom the connection is evident. Spiders create homes by making webs. They construct and care for their egg sacs, which burst forth with countless babies. What could be more maternal?
If you’re an arachnophobe like me, though, that’s actually the last thing that comes to mind when you think about spiders. Webs are death traps, despite being beautifully made. And an egg sac, with its hundreds of little spiders inside, is something to be avoided, except in nightmarish visions where I somehow accidentally step on or brush against one, unleashing those spiders into the world (and onto me).
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the brilliance of spiders. They’re an incredible creation. And I may not associate them with mothers, but I do associate them with something else that’s a part of my identity: artists. Like Arachne at her loom, like the Mama here in my house (I’ll get back to her in a minute), when I sit down at my computer, I weave my web, hoping it will be strong and beautiful and nourish me. And often, something comes to tear it down, and I go and weave it again.
That thought comforts me and gives me a sense of solidarity with spiders, in a very, very abstract way, I suppose. But not when they’re in my apartment.
The autumn after my son was born, we noticed that an enormous brownish-black spider with legs like thick false eyelashes had taken up residence in his newly created room. Clever, as many spiders seem to be, she’d positioned herself just beside a crack in a casement that contains a waterpipe. Whenever we tried to trap her to remove her from the premises, she raced along her tiny web and into the casement. At times, she moved so quickly it was almost as though she’d been sucked inside.
But she always came out again after a while.
The months went on and she grew bigger. She’d often hang slightly off the ground, suspended languorously, legs spread, upside-down in the middle of her small web.
I hated her for being there, for making my son’s beautiful room a place where I had to feel tense and worried.
Worse still, I thought of what might happen if she left her web. Did she, ever? Did she ever, in the darkest hours, crawl over my little son?
The thought is more horrible than I can explain, especially because I don’t know that I was particularly worried she’d bite or otherwise hurt him. I think I just imagined, maybe, that her ticklish presence might scare him.
We didn’t kill Mama. Our house policy is to try to remove bugs and spiders, not hurt them. But even if we would have made an exception for Mama, she couldn’t be caught.
For the past two autumns, there has been no Mama — at least I never saw her there in the corner of my son’s room. But a few days ago, there she was again, or maybe it’s one of her daughters.
My son is older now, and much more aware than the baby he was the first time Mama shared his room. I’ve worked hard not to transmit my fears to him, very much including my at-times crippling fear of spiders. And so, I eye her warily, and speak of her as “our friend” to my husband when I imagine strategies to get her away from that crack in the wall. When I speak directly to her (when my son’s not there) , I say “motherfucker”. It just comes out naturally; I’m very much a mother she’s fucking over, especially now, when my husband is away for a week.
I’m terrified of Mama. I can mutter, “That’s right, motherfucker,” when sixth sense or a slight vibration makes her scramble back to her hiding place. But if she ever got off the web and crawled across the floor or the ceiling — or got into my son’s bed — I don’t know what I would do.
I don’t know how I could help him.
I don’t know what he would do if he woke up with her there, in his bed, on him, on his floor, or dangling above him. My son isn’t afraid of spiders, but is Mama big enough to change his mind? Would the shock of her waking him frighten him into arachnophobia? Could she bite him? These are the thoughts that haunt me as I close his door behind me at night, after kissing him and telling him I love him.
I know this is a part of being a mother, too — you can’t keep your kids with you all the time, trying to shelter them from dangers that probably won’t manifest. You can’t keep your child in your bed all his life. But I feel like I’m betraying him. Terror aside, I would be angry if someone knowingly left me in a dark room with Mama.
Sometimes, I try to turn things around. I think about the archetype. If a spider represents motherhood, could Mama be the manifestation of a friendly maternal soul, watching over us in a way the spirit world allows? Could Mama, say, be my beloved grandma, trying to infuse me with support and her wonderful moxie?
Could Mama be a part of my own mother’s spirit, that part of her heart that thinks of me always, that worries, that wants to see me through the hard times? The last time my husband left me alone, my mother flew across an ocean to be here. Now, she’s too sick to come. Maybe Mama is the way.
Could Mama be here to watch over my son, as well, to see him through nightmares and lost pacifiers? He’s recently become afraid of being woken up by a neighbor’s loud alarm clock. Is that why Mama’s come back?
Or is she simply a (frightening) kindred spirit — a mother artist, sometimes frantic and in a weird way beautiful, desperately hanging on and often afraid?
*“Mama” is one possible English translation of the title of Bourgeois’ sculptures (there are less words for a maternal figure in French, than in English) — the translation I more commonly see is “Mother”. The actual title is the French word, Maman. I’d forgotten that until just now, as I searched for an image of them. “Maman” is also what my bilingual son calls me.