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This writer sees parenthood as the ultimate 'ego death'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's time for another conversation about the different ways we find meaning in the world from our colleague Rachel Martin. It's part of her series called Enlighten Me.

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RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Don't tell my children this, but I wasn't always sold on the idea of having kids. I grew up in a religious, conservative town in Idaho where, for young women, college was considered a place to meet your husband. And if you got an education along the way, well, hey, that's a great example to set for all the kids you're going to have. That wasn't me. I wanted to see the world and get lost and find my way again and fall in and out of love. And I did all those things. For the most part, I did whatever I wanted. I moved from city to city, sometimes country to country. I was the center of my own life. And by the time I was in my early 30s, I was sort of sick of myself. I felt a deep need to take myself out of the spotlight of my own making. I wanted all the things I'd never prioritized. I didn't just want a stable, intimate relationship. I wanted a partner - a person I was spiritually and legally bound to. And I wanted all the joy and heartbreak of raising kids. I no longer saw marriage and parenting as social expectations set up to annihilate my identity. Instead, I saw them as opportunities to push the outer bounds of what it means to love.

Where am I going with all this? This is my way of telling you why I connected so much with the conversation I had recently with Jia Tolentino. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. She's also the daughter of Filipino immigrants who ended up in Houston, Texas, as devout members of an evangelical megachurch. Growing up, Jia looked for transcendent experiences in religion and, later in life, in psychedelic drugs. She also felt ambivalent about having kids. But she just had her second child, and she told me she decided to become a parent because she was craving something existential.

JIA TOLENTINO: I was hungry for ego death. In general, I have sought experiences of ego death in various capacities in my life - you know, in drugs and certain experiences of music and art, but really mostly in drugs (laughter).

MARTIN: Explain what that means to you - ego death.

TOLENTINO: I grew up extremely religious, and I think that one of the things that kept me religious for so long was the experience of sublimating the ego to a sense of the divine. And, you know, you get it occasionally in prayer. I would get it often in this giant, giant church that I was raised in. This was the kind of church where the pastor's face is on billboards throughout the highway, and the sermons are broadcast on TV every Sunday. And the worship center, as it was called, was three stories high and sat, I think, 5- to 6,000 people. I think it had the largest pipe organ in the state of Texas.

MARTIN: Wow. That's saying something. But were - you wanted to lean into those transcendental moments even as a child?

TOLENTINO: Yeah, I just realized I felt most like some particular version of myself that I liked accessing when I could feel the boundaries of myself dissolving, and I could feel myself as part of this, like, nebulous collective. And that always came with some sort of access point to mystery and some sort of access point to fear, and - but also, like, love and connection, right? And you get that in church. And as I stopped believing in God, I started to seek that experience of the boundaries of the self-dissolving in drugs and in music and just lots of dark rooms where people kind of felt the boundaries of the self go away. It felt good for me whenever I would have those experiences of ego death or ego dissolution.

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TOLENTINO: So I had my first kid in August 2020. So the experiences of that ego dissolution - they happened so often in these experiences with my child, you know? And they happened in birth itself - this incredibly shocking event where you are nothing but a vessel.

MARTIN: Right.

TOLENTINO: And it's this shocking moment of revelation and this kind of - the twinning of life and death and the - like, that felt divine in, like, the real way - like, bloody and...

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Terrifying - like, the way that transcendence is always paired with terror, you know?

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: There are kind of ecstatic moments like that. But I think I've had an understanding of ego dissolution in kind of a daily, quiet submission to these acts of care and to the well-being of another person. My natural, ecstatic inclinations - I used to spike really high all the time...

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And I don't really anymore. It's like that impulse gets trickled out a million times a day in tiny ways, and so I no longer have these big reserves that I'll just be, like, walking around in New York City and just feel, like, overcome with a sense of transcendence. Like, I don't have that anymore. It feels like I'm meting it out every day on my children. And, you know, it's probably just getting older and, like, not having hours to just walk around at golden hour, you know (laughter)?

MARTIN: Right.

TOLENTINO: Like, you're just - those are the peak indoor chaos hours in my home now.

MARTIN: Does that feel like a grief to you or just a change?

TOLENTINO: I feel, like, a little bit of grief about it, but I also think it's - it feels right. Like, it also feels entirely correct to this stage of life, which - I've been reminding myself that, three years from now, this will be an entirely different phase. Like, death will come to play a larger part in it as time goes on.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And I think my sense of independent experience certainly will shift again - hopefully shift dramatically in the next 10 years so that I'll start having more of them.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: Right now, it's like there's just always something...

MARTIN: They're in short supply - yeah, yeah.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

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MARTIN: Just to be really basic about it - you see a spiritual component of parenting?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. I do insofar - I mean, my, like - the primary way that I think about the biggest sweep of all the stuff that we're talking about - let's be real. Like, it's still drugs.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLENTINO: It's still - like, last summer, I was done breastfeeding, you know? I went to Montana with one of my best friends for three days. And we went hiking, and then we did acid. And she's a born-and-bred downtown New York girl and, you know, staunch atheist. And she had this moment - you know, and it was just - it was overpoweringly beautiful - and also, we were on acid. And she was like, how is it that we're alive at the same time as each other and as all this beauty? And, like, we're both starting to cry. And I was like, girl, this is why people believe in God, you know?

MARTIN: Totally.

TOLENTINO: Like, I'm reminded in those moments that now what I understand as the closest analogue to God is the fact that the laws of physics and biology create a world that begets life.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: There's a shimmer of the divine around, you know, just the fact of our existence, to me. And so in that way, my understanding of spirituality has bloomed to an inhuman scale, and then it has shrunk to the labor of taking care of a brand-new life and the small moments of mystery and the unknown and also fear and also desperation that that experience brings you.

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MARTIN: I've so enjoyed our conversation.

TOLENTINO: Me too.

MARTIN: Yeah. Thank you so much.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, Thank you.

MARTIN: Jia Tolentino is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.