Motherhood is supposed to be fulfilling. It’s supposed to be all sepia-colored sentimental good times. And, I mean, there are those times. I have an extensive collection of dried weeds gathered by small hands and given to me as bouquets. I have several hand “written” cards celebrating birthdays, holidays, and just random Thursday afternoons. I can also tell you in great detail what it was like to hear my child laugh for the first time.
But I don’t always want to tell that story. In fact, I rarely do.
Here’s a simple question: “How are you doing?” We hear it countless times and take it for granted as the largely superficial question it is. I don’t. I used to, but now I’m anxious to hear it. From anyone. Most of the time, since having kids, people don’t ask me how I am; they ask how my kids are doing. Since having kids, people don’t ask me how I am; they ask how my kids are doing. Even my mother stopped asking how I was doing because that’s the thing about motherhood — it not only becomes the most important thing about you, it becomes the only thing about you. I don’t get “How are you doing?” I get: “How are the kids?,” “How’s the family?,” “How old are your kids now?,” “What grade are the kids in now?,” and every possible variation on that theme imaginable – up to and including asking about my kids’ excrement… over dinner.
We erase women who become parents by reducing them to only motherhood as if we weren’t fully realized people before, as if we cannot continue to be interested in the things we were passionate about before, as if the only interesting thing about us is that we procreated/adopted.
Except for my nerdy friends.
It’s not like they didn’t care that I was now the proud and legally-bound caregiver of a small person, it’s that they also cared what I thought about the problematic aspects of Django Unchained and wanted to parse the time travel and continuity of Looper with me. And by “also” I mean that my kid was now another thing I was into. Yes, I know way more than I ever thought I would about car seats and onesies, but that was just another thing I did. I was still expected to have an opinion about The Walking Dead.*
The difference between allowed to and expected to here is huge. It’s easy to drown in the mounting pile of tiny socks, rubber nipples (they come in sizes?!), and puréed vegetables. The world is set up to facilitate the subsummation of a woman’s identity post-motherhood.
It starts with isolation. I was essentially quarantined with the world’s smallest and worst conversationalist for months. This wasn’t maternity leave; this was my life and it consisted of work (where people asked me incessantly about my new kid) and home with my new kid.
I don’t want to pretend that my partner wasn’t awesome; they were. But I was the milk machine. I was literally tethered to the kid. The lack of physical separation meant that all my time was our time. In case you’ve never met a baby, they’re selfish narcissistic loudmouths. Keeping them alive, unharmed, and relatively happy is a full-time job. On top of my paid full-time job.
Something had to suffer. It wasn’t going to be the kid. So it was me – specifically, the things I enjoyed doing or that gave me definition and sustenance as a person.
And that was, in general, expected. I heard a thousand versions of “Well, since you decided to have kids, you have to make sacrifices…” from everyone. To clarify, I wasn’t pissed I couldn’t take my kid to the club and do shots out a stripper’s cleavage or lines off of a stripper’s abs. I would say something innocuous like: I really wanted to read the Game of Thrones books so I could compare the storylines and character arcs to the show. Not only wasn’t I encouraged to have interests other than my kids, some people made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to.
And those people suck. Because people who truly care about mothers (and parents, in general) understand that being a happy person facilitates being a patient mother. Do you know how many times today I had to hear about the precipitation-based plight of a small arachnid? So. Many. Times. I need all the patience I can muster and if geeking out over female representation in media helps me do that, why begrudge me that?
And that’s where people who don’t suck come in. My nerdiest friends expected me to continue to be a person. The difference between allowed to and expected to saved my mental health. Besides continuing to ask how I was doing, my friends expected me to be current on the things we had in common. Now, I could go off on an epic about the monumental and unrealistic pressures that are put on moms from every direction, but this wasn’t that. If I missed an episode, there was no nerd police that swooped in. But I was expected to catch up and to have a non-baby-related opinion and to support it with textual evidence from the show at some point.
This was vital then, when the wee ones were tiny, but continues to be life-saving now when they are… less wee. Because I still don’t want to talk about them all the time. (Or, let’s be real, even most of the time). I never will. But I’m pretty sure I’ll have opinions about books and television shows forever. That my friends demand that of me is what has kept me present in those friendships and it has, in a way, actually solidified them.
When you’re younger, you end up with friendships of proximity – kids in your class or neighborhood. Sometimes what you have in common is simply shared culture or experience. So when one of you starts experiencing new and different things – like midnight feedings – the foundation of the friendship can get shaky. You don’t have the largest parts of your life in common anymore.
But when the commonality is a shared love or enthusiasm for a book, character, show, movie, or game, that doesn’t change. And when you are frustrated because you’ve been spit up on for the fifth time today, you can find a corner of the internet and read or post a rant about a thing you love and for a brief moment all that parenting can shrink in the distance behind you.
The people who share that enthusiasm are not trying to hear about your kid because they are genuinely more enthusiastic about trailer or the sequel or minutia that only other nerds will appreciate. And that means that to maintain those friendships is to be up on that show or book. And that means to maintain who you were B.C. (Before Children.)
And that can be a life-saving pursuit.
On Creativity, Failure, and Zoe Washburne
As I sit down to write this Mother’s Day morning with a half a flute of mimosa and half a mug of coffee, I’m failing. Failing at a hundred small mother things. I don’t say that for your pity, or even really sympathy, though I’m sure I’ll get some understanding nods from other parents, I say it so you hear me — to be a mother who is also a creator is to constantly fail.
To be a mother who is also a creator is to constantly fail. I’ve come to a comfortable place with this realization, and on the days I’m not comfortable with it, I know where to find my peace — like the person crossing Antarctica who knows where the caches of supplies are buried, motherhood is about nothing if not being prepared to be constantly unprepared. But let’s step back; let’s begin.
I’ve always been a writer. And because I’ve read (and loved) both Virginia Wolfe’s famous A Room of One’s Own and Alice Walker’s response in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, I had a contingency plan in place to establish a writing space when I had my daughter. It was nice too, in the loft of our townhouse, overlooking trees and a parking lot. I had a scheduled time in which to write, Tuesday nights, and I had the habit. I was set. Yet I could produce nothing. Time and space were insufficient for me; my mind was full of all the minutia that I thought was not the stuff of speculative fiction: her feeding schedule, my feeding schedule, how many poops she’d had in a day, if I had in fact gone to the bathroom at all, why she wasn’t growing hair, why mine was falling out.
And of course none of this was the stuff of writing: there are so few examples of motherhood being referenced in the pop culture products I loved. I’m not even talking about centered, I’m talking about represented. Half the time, main characters are orphans, without parents at all, and female characters are either “pre-motherhood” (the assumptions of eventual motherhood always hanging in the distance) or purposely made incapable of motherhood as some monumental blow to their self identity (see the big to-do made of Black Widow’s inability to have children in the last Avengers movie — she was raised as an international superspy and an operation is the event that made her not maternal? Yeah…) And let’s not even talk about how often childbirth as a gateway to death is practically used as a tool of terror in pop culture (my girl Nicole has had choice words on that, to be found here and here). I became convinced there was nothing good to be said from my experience and I couldn’t find the words anyway, so I quit.
I streamed a lot of television. I tried Farscape but I’d already watched Stargate, and seeing the same characters in both shows was too much for my suspension of disbelief. I couldn’t get through the first season of Babylon 5. Cleopatra 2525 was on Netflix at the time and I binge watched all of it during midnight feedings. I love that show, not just because Gina Torres as Hel is hilarious, but because it was three women romping around in a half-developed world giving zero fucks about everything. It was, in fact, escapism written just for me.
It was somewhere in one of the episodes that Hel looked particularly Zoe like and her line from Firefly, episode 13 where she and Wash are discussing having a baby while protecting a whorehouse, came to me: I’m not so afraid of losing something that I won’t try havin’ it.
I’m not so afraid of losing something that I won’t try havin’ it. I was on the other side of motherhood from Zoe, but that statement rang true for so many situations in my life just then: all the things I’d given up willingly when I became a mother didn’t bother me, but things I’d given up against my will, out of fear of failing at motherhood or art or both, drove me to tears, on the couch, a nursing baby in my arms, the credits of a trashy sci-fi show scrolling in the darkness.
I tried writing again. At first I wrote fan fiction, borrowing established settings and characters allowed me to focus on action, motivation, description. I gave the women in my stories the thing they always said they wanted but their male writers never managed to get to: children. After a while, I went back to my own worlds, creating characters I’d never seen but knew were out there, midwives and nurse maids and space-faring mothers who took their kids with them.
I had to accept that compromises must be made. My mind is constantly divided between myself and my family. Focus is hard, so my words require more editing now than they used to. Everything I write is incomplete. Some nights, I feel inspired, so I write and the dishes don’t get done, and lunches get made in the morning. Some nights, I feel inspired and finally get the kid in bed and sit down to my computer and… write a grocery list because gotdamnit why isn’t there any milk? In other words, I fail.
But then I pick up Saga, or Hen & Chick, or Princeless. Or I watch Extant or Firefly. I hug my kid and get my mind right and start again. I’ve got caches of stories to hide for other people; I’ve got thousands of stories to tell for myself.
*Carl should have died in season two after getting shot in the chest).
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Being a father, I can’t speak intelligently to pretty much anything you’ve said, fatherhood as the working partner is sort of a parenthood-lite experience, as much as I wish it was otherwise.
That said I’m curious what full-time stay-at-home dads experience on this subject. I’d be willing to bet that they don’t face the same expectation of only wanting to talk about their kids in social circles.
FWIW in regards to Babylon 5, the first series is almost entirely disposable. If you’ve got through a few episodes you’ve got most of the dramatis personae and back story necessary to watch the rest. Skip ahead to Season 2 and you’ll find a much more enjoyable and cohesive show. It really got its feet. My wife is really not one for scifi, and often actively avoids it, but loves strong female characters and found that she really liked Ivanova and Delenn.
Thank you for that first article~my mom used to say the same things to me, about people not seeing her as a person or asking how she was doing, though some of her art friends did.
Allaya P. Cooks-Campbell
Thank you so much–this is crucial. People need to see mothers as people that have children, not slaves to that identity.