The opposite of kvelling is kvetching–and it’s something, if I can say so myself, that I’m quite good at. Every non-Jewish boyfriend I ever had learned the meaning of this Yiddish word that onomatopoetically conjures up its very essence: kkkvehhhtch. To complain persistently; whine.
I’ve kvetched about heat in August and cold in December, my mother, my father, and all my ex-boyfriends. I could (and have) conjured up a kvetch in Central Park, on a fresh April Day, while eating ice cream in the arms of my beloved (teenagers, you know. So freaking loud).
But even I am surprised at my recent kvetching. It’s not that I don’t have cause to whine with constant stress, sleepless nights, and nipples as raw as a nose bruised by an arctic wind–it’s just that I never imagined, even with my considerable expertise in this art, that kvetching would be my reaction to my child.
For years, my ovaries burned at the sight of a baby’s toothless grin. I ached to become a mother and spent considerable time daydreaming about pudgy toes and lullabies. I envisioned myself with a pregnant belly, glowing with joy, then cradling that precious infant, kissing its feathery hair. The only crying I foresaw in this future were tears of joy.
When I finally got pregnant, I suffered a devastating miscarriage. You would think the pain of that experience would buffer me from all discomforts the next go around, that the heartbeat flashing on the monitor would pierce any kvetch, and those little kicks against my skin would remind me to count my blessings and appreciate my good fortune. And then once the baby was born, healthy, delicious, brave, brilliant and all around fantastic? I should be relishing this child without a peep of complaint.
Should? Well, I’m not. “She won’t play by herself for a second!” “These stretchmarks, ugh…” “I haven’t slept an uninterrupted three hours in months!” “Yesterday, I almost thought I was going to get a full shower, when she grabbed the glass hand lotion bottle, and I had to fly across the bathroom, slipping on suds, to catch it.”
Mothering is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and it is a lonely, uncelebrated challenge. There is not yet a Nobel Prize in breastfeeding or an Oscar for not screaming like a banshee when a passing motorcycle wakes your baby who finally fell asleep in the carrier after 49 minutes of singing, walking, shushing, nursing delirium. But despite the secret suffering, becoming a mother is still the realization of my dream. “Why am I kvetching so darn much?” I kvetch.
Recently, I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (for like two seconds, then the baby woke, for literally, the sixth time that evening). I was struck by something Jong wrote. Gossip, she says, is “the original form of consciousness-raising… Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed.”
Perhaps we can apply that insight to kvetching as well. Maybe kvetching is how we raise our hidden desires and frustration to the surface. Maybe kvetching is the language of some children and some mothers and some peoples (ahem), because it is a first step out of a limited situation, into a better one. It’s a sign that there is awareness of what’s painful and not working, and that awareness can, or might, one day bring change.
So maybe my kvetching is a courageous act of activism. Maybe kvetching is the first step towards solving the myriad of challenges I face as a new mother, and to raising awareness of the problems that other mothers face, that need to be better addressed. Because let me tell you, it’s not just me–many mothers in our culture have it really rough–but that’s a whole other kvetch, I’ll save it for next time.