Nowadays, a modern person has to be careful about implying that there is anything “unique” about motherhood. After all, you don’t want to imply that someone who is not a mother, or else not a mother in the traditional sense, has somehow been deprived of a unique experience.
The physiological aspects of traditional motherhood – gestating a person, giving birth to them, and then likely going on to nourish them with your body for some time – are pretty damn unique experiences. And there is a reason why people who have had these experiences tend to bond over them the way soldiers do.
But mommyhood, whether biological or otherwise, also affects different people differently. It has a tendency to change people – but in different ways. Some people become mothers – and, as a result, grow intellectually and spiritually and what have you. But motherhood can also expose your fundamental weaknesses and character flaws, and leave you face-to-face with your own shortcomings. Because it is physically and emotionally taxing, because it limits your lifestyle in some very basic ways, it can slough away at your illusions and whatever comfortable mythology you have built up around yourself in your years on earth. When you’re taking care of someone very small and vulnerable, and yet very demanding, you learn a lot about yourself, and not all of that knowledge will be comforting.
You’ll find that you have a lot of work to do on yourself – and not a whole lot of time and energy to do it.
Of course, every once in a while, you also go to the pool:
At the pool, you hand the baby to the husband (who, being a stereotypical husband, loves playtime), and reflect (haw haw) by the water for a bit.
How has motherhood changed me? Well, it has changed my body. It has rewired my brain – and honed my reflexes. It has rewritten something fundamental inside of me, some great big block of code that comprises that entity known as the soul. It has made me more attuned to suffering and injustice – behind every murder victim or every person illegally convicted in a corrupt court, I see someone’s small child, some little smiling face. It has made me more aware of the terror of nature, and the terror of fate, and yet less helpless somehow, because I have a dependent, I cannot crap out. It has made me more aggressive – something I would normally welcome, except that keeping my aggression in check is important when I go home in the evenings, and close the front door, and am alone with my family. The power I now possess must be used wisely, or else it can destroy my relationships.
I take more responsibility and yet live more dangerously. Or that’s how I feel, anyway.
A childless (not to be confused with childfree – that’s not how she identifies herself) friend recently admitted that she was “scared” of me or “scared to end up like [me]” – she wasn’t sure which. I think those feelings are normal. At 25, when I first started longing for a child, I would have been scared of my future self too. She’s got bigger boobs that don’t fit into any of her old clothes, a leaner wallet and a meaner attitude. She can sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” with a straight face.
20 thoughts on “What hath mommyhood wrought?”
On the topic of women’s perspective on life and values you might be interested in this film, both as a mommy and filmmaker
When I showed the movie to my ethics class I asked them to write on the question: “Why were the women the only ones who wanted to make peace, while the men wanted to keep making war?”
Big hugs sent your way, to hold you on your journey. I love the look of joy on Lev’s face.
I know exactly what you mean. At the risk of getting all maudlin again, I’ll just say that I’m happy to be back with my son… for the moment. I hope I can stay this time. I made a big to-doo over baking a couple of monster cakes for his birthday. He’s smiling through the last of his candy sprinkled chocolate smears right now 🙂
Here’s one of my favourite fanvids, so I don’t have to try to rely on the English language to express these mommyfeelings. Enjoy. Always be prepared to look back on each day with your little guy and say “Yes, those were the best days of my life.”
I really don’t think it’s that “a modern person has to be careful about implying that there is anything ‘unique’ about motherhood” because “you don’t want to imply that someone who is not a mother … has somehow been deprived of a unique experience.”
By all means, say there’s something unique about motherhood. Without a doubt, people who have not gestated and given birth to and nurtured a tiny person have not had that experience. But also note that I said “have not had,” rather than “have somehow been deprived of”. What I wish people would be more careful about is implying that there is something SO unique about biological motherhood that women who do not experience it, because of chance, choice, or whatever, are somehow lesser women who cannot possibly have had other unique, worthwhile, giving-life-meaning experiences. That motherhood trumps all.
Do I personally think that nobody has “other unique, worthwhile” experiences if they don’t push a baby out of their loins? Um, no…? But a lot of people view it as a deprivation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s how you choose to relate to it. I viewed it as a deprivation when I was considering the possibility of never having biological children – “but do I want to be deprived of this experience?” I often thought. Wanting to have a baby is like nothing else either – it’s like wanting to have a baby. Some people will never have that desire, no matter what. I never had it, and when I suddenly did, it was a surprise.
And now that I DO have my own biological bundle of joy, I must report that a different kind of deprivation sets in – be it sleep, or money, or peace of mind, or health, or being able to go about your business.
Traditional motherhood can be kinda limiting, which is why I personally don’t romanticize it (do I?), even though I think it’s cool. Breast-feeding a new baby is extremely time-consuming, for example. Pumping when you’re away is a bitch. The bullshit about “having it all” is just that, bullshit – the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, so to speak, and nobody gets to have it all, in the end. Not having a biological child means that you’re deprived of certain experiences, and having a biological child means the exact same thing.
The thing is, motherhood is never defined by biology – but biology adds that extra layer of crazy to the proceedings, I think. Biological motherhood is big test for the body and for the mind – but there is nothing absolute to be said about it either. It CAN be a lot of fun, though – and that fun is like nothing else I’ve experienced so far.
It can be hard to talk about motherhood anymore because if we do it seems we are somehow not legitimizing child free women, which isn’t the case at all. Sigh. Anyway, I know just what you mean – if you had told me a couple of years ago that I would spend a considerable amount of time reading the same four page book – over and over and over again- or sing Old McDonald seventeen times in one day, I would have thought you were nuts. But I will say (and in this day and age I feel like we aren’t even supposed to say this!) I love being a mom and I love how motherhood has changed me. For me, I thoroughly love the roles of wife and mother – they are a good fit. I realize many aren’t as lucky!
Right. Not having a kid would have been a deprivation for you, but it is not necessarily a deprivation for everyone, which is why I bristled a bit at the initial phrasing.
I think Courtney is right that it’s hard for women with kids to talk about motherhood in a way that doesn’t seem implicitly critical of women without kids, perhaps because we women without kids are explicitly criticized for it all the time.
I think what I’m trying to say is that the first paragraph added nothing to this post. I love reading about your experience of being a mother–your posts about Lev and the ways in which your life has and has not changed as a result of becoming a parent are beautiful and fascinating, and they make me wonder what parenthood would be like for me. Biological mothering is special. No argument there. And that would have been clear from the rest of what you wrote, without the snipy line about implying that people are deprived without the experience.
But why is it snipy to suggest that the narrative of deprivation is, well, normal? I don’t like to pretend as though all of our lives are totally balanced in every way – in the end, we all miss out on something. That’s what I believe.
I completely agree with you that no one can have it all and our lives are not and cannot be balanced in every way, but the word deprivation has a very negative connotation. It’s generally used to refer to something you’re missing out on that you inherently SHOULD have (food, sleep, medical care, for example). I would use the word deprived to describe women who are forcibly sterilized and thus are deprived of the chance to bear children. But the standard trade-offs that go with having/not having kids aren’t deprivations. They’re trade-offs. Saying deprivation is a value judgment on people who don’t have kids. It seems like you recognize that, given the phrasing of that first paragraph.
I think it’s a value judgment on an experience – and how people relate to it. A lot of people feel deprived without kids. Conversely, a lot of people don’t. I just don’t see how that’s controversial. I suppose the old narrative of “every woman is deprived unless she experiences the miracle of birth” (BAHAHA) figures into it.
I see nothing controversial in recognizing that many people feel deprived without kids and many people don’t. If you were being totally literal when you wrote, “After all, you don’t want to imply that someone who is not a mother, or else not a mother in the traditional sense, has somehow been deprived of a unique experience,” then I misread you and launched into this discussion pointlessly. (And if you were being totally literal, tell me so I don’t keep monopolizing your comment section!) But you wrote that, and then proceeded to explain why it IS such a unique experience, making it seem a lot like you were implying that non-mothers have been deprived.
Nah, I said that it affects different people differently. And I gave examples. As I mentioned, It has made me meaner (which was a big surprise!). I wrote that first line because I think the way we talk about parenthood can reveal a lot about us. Who bashes childfree people the most, after all? I think it’s folks, both mothers and fathers, who are either unhappy about their roles or certain aspects of them, or else are renegotiating said roles – so they derive validation from bashing a childfree individual while they are in a period of uncertainty. The converse is true for people negotiating their lives without children, I think. If they feel the need to genuinely devalue someone’s experience – such as giving birth – then there is probably something on the inside they’re actively dealing with, and whatever that is is manifesting itself in this way. Comparing a mother to a cow falls in the same category (lol – I always get a kick out of that, especially since there is a Mayakovsky poem about that).
As a childfree woman by choice, I understand the knee-jerk reaction against the word such as “deprivation,” but this is what a lot of people face in the economic crisis today. The younger generation is actually discouraged from having babies. I have zero interest in children or marriage, I think it’s a stupid choice for most women, but experiences of friends who desperately wanted kids gave me some pause.
In the childfree community, there are a some people who are on the fence about their choices. I think these are the people who can say dismissive and even abusive things about childbirth and child-rearing. Everyone should be able to question their choices and lifestyle, but not at the expense of another marginalized group (I wholly believe mothers are marginalized, even though motherhood remains on a pedestal in popular culture).
Nobody likes to admit they are missing out on something. But it’s true – I have decided to miss out on motherhood. That choice was easy for me, not so for others….Some people without children are genuinely deprived. Because the boomers have all but cornered the market on economic privilege, this conversation is going to get bigger, as people of child-bearing age find they’re unable to start families.
Sad but true. I was hoping to sidestep reality a little bc it’s just so depressing that people have to devote so much webspace to telling other people when and how and with whom to get off, and procreate or not procreate. Even when that’s not the issue, somebody always gets offended, or asks if they should be offended, or has to apologize for being offended, or not being offended. Blah.
I posted my Xenavid bc I was hoping to inject a bit of Joseph Campbell/Jean Shinoda Bolen-ish sentiment about the Epic Hero(ine)’s Quest into the discussion.
I love your whimsical, authorly posts about geekdom, adventure, and pretty metaphors, Natalia. I was hoping we could have one of those fun discussions about parenting, where ugly things become underworld monsters and babies are the light in the sought-after artefact that was the whole point of all the questing. Not to dismiss the importance of those who quest for sacred scrolls (education) or groovy inventions, of course… Maybe hoping for whimsical epics about parenting is unrealistic in the touchy-touchy world of the feminist blogosphere *sigh*
I wasn’t really thinking about the economic implications of all of this when I was typing up this post – but I’m glad to have them brought up (Tabby, you’re not even trolling today – what’s going on?!).
A lot of people my age face criticism from the older generation when we have kids while in debt, for example. The thing is, if I had waited to pay off my own student debt before having a child – it means that I would have never been able to have a biological child altogether. My only option would have been adoption – if I could even afford it, which is not likely. I think we are in a situation where a generation gap makes older people completely unaware that the rug has been pulled from underneath younger people. We simply don’t have the same options right now.
The first line of my post was mostly directed at people who say things like, “Don’t make such a big deal out of giving birth, out of child-rearing! It’s really not that important! You might as well have bought a parakeet from a pet store!” It was prompted by a bizarre interview I recently gave.
But I would be glad if money were a part of this conversation.
Also, Xena, I don’t think Joy was being touchy-touchy.
It IS a recurrent theme in the feminist blogosphere, however – the need to be careful when speaking about motherhood.
@Natalia Antonova – “It was prompted by a bizarre interview I recently gave.”
If that’s an English-language interview, could you provide a link to it? Was that part of your Forbes interview about student debt? I try to keep up with your articles and interviews, but I don’t recall any online interviews specifically about your decision to have children.
Thanks in advance for any link you can provide.
Hm, I don’ think it’s up anywhere – and I’m kind of hoping it won’t be. I might write a separate post about it at some point. It was a bizarre experience.