It’s so simple. It’s so complicated.
It’s simple because the impetus to care for another comes quite easily to most of us, if not through instinct then through conditioning. We’re told, from almost the time we’re born, that it is virtuous to attend to the needy, that we’re supposed to respond almost without thinking to those who can’t care for themselves. There are baby dolls that cry tears and wet their diapers that are given to us so we can practice. And that’s supposed to be play.
It’s complicated because there is nothing playful about taking care of another human’s needs. In fact, in my experience there is nothing so anxiety producing as new motherhood, or really any stage of motherhood. I think we start to relax a little bit at some stage only because we’re just too tired to worry quite so much as we once did. And yes, of course our children develop and progress and (with any hope) learn to care for themselves, but they are Always. Our. Responsibility. So the anxiety never really goes away.
I’ve observed motherhood from many angles: I watched my own mother struggle to provide for my sister and me — not only with the material things that she worked hard to get for us, but also to provide the safety she knew we needed, to provide a template for living that would be good for us, to be available to us despite having to navigate the ups and downs of living with a jealous and abusive husband, to even always tuck us in at night and without fail always show us and tell us she loved us. She didn’t get a chance to complete the job she battled mightily some days to do but if I can be sure about anything I’m not sure about, it’s that she left the world fighting for us.
I watched her mother be an almost perfect version of a quiet, contented, domestic titan who could pinch a penny until President Lincoln screamed uncle and reportedly once jumped into and stopped a moving car full of children that some other harried woman had absentmindedly left in gear. It was drifting into traffic and she saved the day, and most likely those babies’ lives.
I watched my aunt almost seamlessly take me into her home and treat me as close to her own child as I would allow when I was an emotional bloody pulp of an orphaned teenager.
I watched my very first boss, a fiercely talented and independent Ph.D. psychologist (who is still practicing now at age 87) and mother of five, impart more valuable life lessons to me than I am probably even aware of and trust me to do a job I probably shouldn’t have been trusted with at 18 (managing her office and most aspects of her life), shape and help me hone my character and code.
I have observed more angles through knowing more women than I can name here. They have all been and continue to be angels in my life. They were and are not perfect, but were and are giants, though they were never deserving of being reduced to vessels or providers. Each mothered and mothers differently. They were human, despite having given birth, are were and are not to be solely revered or reviled because of how they conducted that one aspect of their lives. Some of us ease into it and make it look like the most natural and happy thing in the world, and some of us go kicking and screaming, feeling assaulted by the little being who threatens to take us over and rob us of our choices and freedom. A lot of us fall somewhere in between, vacillating in the middle of the spectrum of emotions that comes with sudden, forced maturity and supposed reduced options.
The 10-year period after a woman has a child is often referred to as the ghost years. If a woman is an artist, her output is expected to decrease if not in quantity then surely quality as she tends to her charge or charges, putting them first every day of her life, and putting herself and her work mostly last. But how many of us have dispelled the notion that we no longer have anything valid to say after giving birth and kept creating, doggedly searching for new depth and new avenues to express ourselves, often finding that yes, we have changed in some ways, but that we haven’t developed one giant brain cell that functions and exists only to feed and care for our families? In many ways we become even smarter, more capable, more efficient, and much hungrier for our own, separate identities because yes, our autonomous selves sometimes in fact do become in danger of being eaten up by time sucking domestic duties. Our identities do change after we have children, how could they not? But I argue that they almost always become richer, more rounded, and more empathetic. Not to say that doesn’t happen for women who don’t procreate for other reasons, but I’m not covering that here except to say that motherhood isn’t nor should it be for everyone and everyone is entitled to that choice under any circumstance. Period.
We intellectually know this, every one of us. So I wonder why we so often think primitively when anything emotional is introduced into a discussion about mothering? We’ve been raising the question of why we’re reduced to what does or doesn’t come from our wombs for a long time. There’s no reason for me to go through the list of all of those things here. I’ll just say that there is more than one way to go about the job. And all of the women who taught me how to do it taught me that. It is hard. It is rewarding. It is full of joy and sorrow and sweet smiles and heavy tears. It is simple. It is complicated. It is, above all else, the cause for expansion in a million different directions. And finally, it is to be done as originally and individually as the unique spirits that live within each of us. There’s just no way around that. I could go on, but my hour is up, and my list of things to do, domestic and artistic, grows.
Hail to the mothers.
Happy Monday, Y’all.