An essay I wrote is going up today on HerStory, a blog of women’s writing. It’s kind of a journal entry from almost a year ago. I wrote the meat of it back in March 2016 about how miserable I was at the end of my pregnancy, and returned to in October. That was when I cleaned it up and made sense of it to present to an audience. I hope it helps explain some of my time away from the blog. Here’s a permanent link. Enjoy!
I originally wrote this post back in February 2013 when I was still pregnant.
This blog post went viral this week, and I wanted to respond to it publicly, at length, and I felt a simple comment on the blog wouldn’t do. Reading this story felt like a glimpse into a potential future for me. The idea of losing my identity as I become a mother has been haunting me for the past few months.
In this essay, which is raw and honest and fun to read, Janelle Hanchett of Renegade Mothering discusses how women who become mothers must mourn the loss of their previous life, their freedom and youth. She explores the emotional and physical costs of having a child, the isolation, the responsibility, the primacy of the bond between a mother and child. She says that a mother’s previous self is “just dead,” but somehow, she’s still there, and her new job is to discover who she is as a mother, because she has been reborn. Since reading this post, I’ve read more of Hanchett’s work and liked most of it. But this one struck a chord with me and rubbed me a tiny bit wrong.
I think the most valuable contribution of a blog like this is in starting a conversation and breaking a taboo. It’s important to say that these are normal reactions to giving birth and dealing with a newborn, and if we label every woman who has these feelings as PPD, then we’re watering down the meaning of that diagnosis and medicalizing perfectly typical emotions. We should be able to talk about the dark side of this harrowing transition, even if it seems shocking to think that all new mothers are not bursting with joy every second. In this way, Hanchett’s post did a great public service.
The vast majority of responses to the post were overwhelmingly positive. Many, many women felt that Hanchett had articulated their own experience perfectly. However, there were some critical comments on the blog from fathers, adoptive mothers, and others who felt that Hanchett had implicitly belittled their experience of parenthood. She says explicitly, “I’m not trying to speak for everybody.” She set out to tell her own story, and she should be allowed to do that without the expectation that her story will be universal. However, I think the reactions of these readers are understandable given the rhetorical choices Hanchett made. When she decided to use the second person for most of her post, she put herself in a position of telling her readers what they’re feeling. For the majority of her readers, this made the piece even more effective, because it hit so close to home. But readers whose experiences were quite different understandably felt alienated by this rhetoric, which often comes off as presumptuous. I don’t think they should have responded by saying that the post was bad or wrong because it didn’t address their particular stories. They should have reflected and realized that wasn’t the intention. But the fact is that Hanchett opened herself up to criticism with her bold word choice. She took a risk, and since it endeared her to more readers than it pissed off, I’d say the risk paid off.
Beyond the effects of the choice to use second person, though, I do think that those critics have a point when they say that Hanchett diminished, dismissed, or disregarded their experiences. She used all caps to talk about how no one, “NOT EVEN THE DAD” has the same relationship with a baby as his mother. In the comments, she defended this passage by saying that she was just trying to point out differences and speak from the mother’s viewpoint. However, different is inherently unequal. To me, when Hanchett emphasizes the primacy of her own experience, she implies that other experiences are less than. She would disagree with that idea, though, and said as much in the comments. I feel sure that if Hanchett and I were to debate this issue, we’d just end up yelling, “No, it doesn’t!” “Yes, it does!” Super productive.
This is why we have mommy wars. It’s so hard to communicate about these issues without judging each other. It’s hard to discuss why a choice was right for us individually without denigrating the things we didn’t choose. Hard to listen to another’s experience with an open heart instead of a defensive one. We need to acknowlege that. I’m not perfect either and I hope I learn from my mistakes here too.
The essay ends with a hopeful note, the idea that while Hanchett’s previous self is dead and gone beyond hope of return, she has been reborn as a new mother-self, better, kinder, gentler, and wiser. However, the idea of rebirth, of the sacrifice being worth it, could be seen to diminish the present pain. Pointing out the benefits of such a tremendous loss seems insensitive, like saying to a young widow at a funeral, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” To someone in the midst of that grief and transition, it’s inadequate and even insulting. A much more trivial example: when I was shopping for acne products recently, bemoaning the fact that pregnancy and my consequent inability to take an antibiotic has caused my skin to break out worse than it has in years, the saleslady said, “It’ll all be worth it!” brightly, and I felt totally invalidated, like the fact that I can barely stand to look in a mirror doesn’t even matter since I must be so overcome with excitement about my impending motherhood. “It’ll be worth it in a few months,” I replied diplomatically. “In the meantime I need to be able to show my face in public without dying of shame.” The idea of something painful–pregnancy, relationship difficulties, hard work in school or career–being “worth it” reduces that pain to the payment half of a transaction. And since you wouldn’t take it back, since the “return” on those “investments” is priceless, you have to acknowledge that you got a good deal, even while you’re in the midst of that pain. Meg Keene of A Practical Wedding says of her difficult pregnancy, “People told me that having a baby would “make it all worth it,” like somehow the slate could be wiped clean, and that wasn’t true. If your journey is particularly painful, the joy does not erase the pain. Joy and pain are different things, and they can each exist without diminishing the other.”
Sure, it’s great to celebrate the way these sacrifices and trials make us better people, the “beautiful catastrophe” of a woman’s death and rebirth, but this attitude could lead to accepting a status quo that is abusively harmful to women’s psyches. Hanchett points out differences between the way men and women experience parenting, without saying that these differences are unfair and sexist. Personally, I think the fact that women have to endure this little death, this loss of self, this phoenix rebirth, is bullshit. It’s one of many things that’s not fair about parenting and sex differences in our society, and it’s something we could change if we tried. If we raised children in communities (it takes a village) instead of in isolated pairs or totally alone, if we provided more supports for young parents as a society, if we had more equal notions of what it means for men and women to be parents, then maybe women wouldn’t have to grieve their previous lives because those lives wouldn’t have to change so much. We can’t give a man breasts or a uterus, but once a child is born a father is equally capable of nurturing, and should be given the chance to sacrifice and grow the way his female partner does.
Hanchett didn’t take that next step of questioning why things have to be this way, and maybe her post wasn’t the place to do that. I know she didn’t set out in this blog to make policy recommendations or to call for change. Maybe that’s a discussion she wants to have in the future. Or maybe not. Maybe she just wants to share her experiences with others who can relate. It’s not her job to change the world. But for me, asking those questions is a necessary next step, because without it, the picture of motherhood that’s presented is pretty bleak.
Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich
This is a big important feminist book about how motherhood is a patriarchal institution that oppresses women, but–and here is the crucial part–it doesn’t have to be. The language and approach is academic; it’s not really something that I think would appeal to a broad popular audience today. This is such an important topic because I feel like motherhood is really where feminism has the most work left to do. For example, the gender wage gap is really a motherhood gap: women earn just as much, if not more, than comparably educated men, until they have children.
Rich is of my grandmother’s generation; her second son was born the same year my mother was. I kept that in mind when some things she said seemed dated or odd. The book was written in 1976, and the edition I read had a foreword written for the ten-year anniversary edition that came out when I was two. Her experience of motherhood seems to have been close to that of the stereotypical 50’s housewife, and she goes into detail about how oppressive she found that lifestyle.
Given my recent experiences, the chapter on the politics of birth was incredibly relevant to me. It was interesting to read about the history of childbirth and what Ina May Gaskin would call the medicalization of birth, the way male OB/GYNs kind of took it over from traditional midwives. I really feel like people have recently become more aware of the problems Rich discusses here, and that things have gotten a lot better in this realm since she wrote this book almost 30 years ago. My birth experience in May was nothing like the horrors described in this chapter. I dealt exclusively with other women. At no point in the process did a man try to take control away from me or tell me what I should do. I was encouraged to trust my body and to be actively involved and mentally present throughout. Thanks to my midwife and all the other women who helped with my labor, including my mother, a volunteer doula, and several nurses, I emerged from the experience feeling strong and empowered. I am really grateful that things have improved as much as they have. It could still get better, though. For example, the nitrous oxide that I used to relieve labor pains could be more widely available. There are many areas, even in big cities, where there is no access to midwives at all. Not to mention the sometimes outrageous costs involved in giving birth.
The chapters on mythology and folklore did not feel as relevant and useful to me as the ones about Rich’s own experiences in her family, the chapter on birth, and the one about what it means to mother a son in a patriarchy.
One of the main things I’m taking away from the book is the difference between motherhood in my personal life and motherhood as a patriarchal institution. The first is good, the second bad, and the more influence the second has on the first, the worse off I will be.
I became a mother on May 29.
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned in the past week.
1. Nitrous oxide is a miracle drug that should be available for all women in childbirth everywhere. It can change a woman in the most intense stages of labor from a despairing sufferer lashing out at everyone, to a chilled-out paragon of courage and strength.
2. Breastfeeding is hard and painful. It is bullshit when they say that it shouldn’t hurt as long as the latch is correct. A bad latch certainly hurts worse, and the initial suck is the worst part, but even with a good latch, a baby with strong instincts, and experienced caregivers providing support, each individual suck can pinch and pull. Engorgement means that I’ve passed the point of no return–not nursing hurts even worse than nursing does. For me, for now, on the whole, breastfeeding is bearable. For others, it may not be, and I understand that more than ever now.
3. I am amazingly lucky. My child is healthy. My labor was relatively quick and free from unnecessary medical intervention, and my physical recovery is going well. My caregivers in the hospital did a great job on the whole. My child is healthy and beautiful, with gorgeous skin, a rosebud mouth, and bright, curious eyes. I have been overwhelmed with help and support from friends and relatives, especially my mom, who has coached me in labor and in establishing breastfeeding, helped with the baby’s restless nights, cleaned my whole house, stocked my fridge, and waited on me hand and foot while I fed the baby. My child is heathy and strong, with amazing feeding instincts and the head control of a baby several weeks older. My partner is committed to both of us and eager to learn his new role. He and I have all the resources we need to care for this baby. My child is healthy and seems happy, or at least he’s easy enough to satisfy, has some ability to self-soothe, and doesn’t seem to cry for no reason (so far). My body is producing the food he needs. In almost every aspect of this experience, I have had the best possible outcome, or at least the best outcome anyone could reasonably expect. Each one of these things is an amazing piece of good fortune, without which I might be struggling. Each one of them is too good for me.
4. I want to express my happiness and gratitude without being smug or self-satisfied. I think the best way to strike that balance is to recognize that I have done nothing to deserve this luck. There is nothing that I did before, during, or after pregnancy to earn or deserve a relatively easy delivery and healthy baby, much less the other blessings, which have more to do with the generosity of others than with me. I want to be grateful for my good fortune without implicitly condemning less fortunate women. Also, I want to acknowledge that the hardest days are ahead of me and that this good fortune may not last. I want to mix my gratitude with humility, appreciating the many good things in my new motherhood more because I know I don’t deserve them. They are gifts, and can’t be earned.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
I heard about this book through my childbirth class and picked it up as a final way to prepare myself for labor, since it’s been months since I read Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth. There is a bias in the book toward “natural” childbirth and against a “medicalized” model of care, but Gaskin makes a very persuasive case for why her general approach is best for the majority of women. Despite her agenda, Gaskin speaks in a respectful and mostly non-judgemental way about women whose birth choices she would disagree with, mostly because she seems to see them as victims of the dysfunctional health care system. I thought the best and most useful parts of the book were the descriptions of “sphincter law” and the mind-body connection as applied to childbirth.
Reading this book in the final weeks of my pregnancy was both reassuring and scary. It was good to hear stories about births going well and being pleasant, even joyful. Stories like these don’t get told very often among women; I’ve noticed that when women talk about their childbirth experiences, there is a tendency toward sensationalism that is almost calculated to horrify women facing their first delivery. Gaskin’s stories were very different, positive in tone and focused on celebrating the power of the woman’s body. Often, she described some problem that was encountered in a woman’s labor and the homey, logical steps she and her midwives took to solve it, and the almost magical results.
I am probably not Gaskin’s ideal audience. I’m not the “granola” type; I don’t go in for chanting and visualization and Enya music, and I’m way more sexually repressed than Gaskin’s orgasmic mothers, so some of her suggestions seemed kind of far out and weird to me personally, although I’m sure they would work for someone who’s into that stuff. Reading this book didn’t change my birth plan much. Not much of the information was new to me. I chose the Vanderbilt Nurse-Midwives for my care because I wanted to work within the midwife model of care, but I also wanted to deliver in a hospital in case of emergency. I want to go with the flow and trust my caregivers and follow their advice. Reading this book gave me a few extra ideas and strategies, and a bit more confidence that everything will be all right, and that makes it worth reading for any expectant mother.
I’m a writer in a writing rut. I’m feeling myself lose interest in my blog, in my journal. I’m having trouble focusing; I feel like I have nothing worthwhile to say. It’s not a new feeling. I’ve had it before. But this time I feel like I have something to blame it on: I’m pregnant.
I’m very largely pregnant. My house is cluttered with baby gifts that haven’t yet found a place to belong. My last month’s calendar was full with showers, midwife appointments, and family visits. The little person inside me makes sitting (or standing or lying down) for long periods uncomfortable and distracts me by kicking painfully at my ribs. If I went into labor today, the baby wouldn’t be considered premature.
So I kind of feel like I can let myself off the hook. It’s only natural that I turn inward and focus my attention on the life that’s growing inside me, on the ordeal I’ll soon endure giving birth. No need to wallow in non-writing-writer guilt like usual. This is one time it’s ok to be lazy. One thing that I think will help me to survive motherhood is being kind to myself, and I know I should start that now.
But I also want to resist that urge to slow down. My biggest fear in becoming a mother is losing my identity, losing the things that are most important to me. In order to avoid resenting my child, I know I’ll have to hang on to the things that make me who I am. So I need to keep writing. It’s more urgent now than ever.
One comforting thing that I’ve heard from other young mothers I trust who have an outlook similar to mine is that when you have a child, your priorities do shift, but you can still make time for the things that are truly important.
I’m making time for other things that aren’t writing. Easier things, less mentally draining things. I’m still going to the gym about five times a week, for example, though my pace on the elliptical machine has significantly slowed. The choice to prioritize gym time probably has more to do with my poor body image than with my love for exercise.
Part of it may be that I’m afraid of writing. Afraid of reflecting. Afraid of what I’ll discover if I think deeper about this transition and go beneath the surface of onesies and diaper bags. But I need to face that fear. It’s important for women to write about themselves and to make their struggles public if they can take the heat. Letting others in can make all of our struggles a little more bearable because they feel less solitary.
So I want to make writing a priority, while also being kind to myself when it doesn’t go well. That’s kind of hard when my main source of motivation in life has been the conviction that if I don’t accomplish X task then I’m worthless. I need to balance that motivating writer guilt with the need to be kind to myself. Balance–as elusive as that concept is–is the goal, and it begins not just with my actions, or how I spend my time, but with my thinking.
I guess this is my pep talk to myself as I face the biggest change in my life so far. To put this new focus into action, I feel like I need to inject some life into this blog. One thing I’d like to do in order to keep the blog going and make it fun, sustainable, and engaging, is expand somewhat beyond book reviews to repost articles that I read online. A good amount of the reading that I do is online, and I believe this is the case for many, many people I know too. I like it when facebook friends direct me to interesting articles, so hopefully my audience here will appreciate these links as well. These posts will be similar to the “internet roundup” posts that I’ve done a couple times and similar to what I’ve seen on blue milk, a feminist blog on parenting that I admire. I’ll offer a quote from an article I’ve read online, with or without commentary. I’ll keep using the internet roundup tag on these posts for organization and clarity.
So, since it’s the season, I wanted to make my first internet roundup post in about a year about Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. …
I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. …
It should go without saying that I also hate Valentine’s Day.
Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am still opposed to Mother’s Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents. …
Don’t get me wrong: There were times I could have literally died of love for my son, and I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me. But I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss. But in my experience, it’s parents who are prone to exhibit terrible self-satisfaction and selfishness, who can raise children as adjuncts, like rooms added on in a remodel. Their children’s value and achievements in the world are reflected glory, necessary for these parents’ self-esteem, and sometimes, for the family’s survival. This is how children’s souls are destroyed.
I guess I’m about 96% done with my pregnancy, so I guess that gives me about 96% of a right to celebrate Mother’s Day as a mother and expect others to shower me with flowers and greeting cards. But Lamott’s article really makes some great points that I totally agree with. Mother’s Day celebrates the ideology of total motherhood that frightens me so much. It excludes childless women and men in the same way that Valentine’s Day excludes the uncoupled. It’s not an equal opportunity holiday. Lamott makes me want to boycott Mother’s Day forever.
The problem is that I would feel horrible explaining these objections to my mother, mother-in-law, and my husband’s grandmother when they wonder why I’m not giving or accepting gifts on Mother’s Day. I don’t want to insult them or the sacrifices they made to raise their kids. At the same time, though, I think I will make a point of honoring my husband’s childless aunt, who is like a second mother to him, and I might bring up Lamott’s main points if the opportunity arises. I will probably celebrate Mother’s Day the same way I celebrate Valentine’s Day: tongue-in-cheek, fully aware of its problematic exclusionary nature, with no sense of superiority, and most of all privately. I hated Valentine’s Day growing up, because I spent all of high school single, and that experience still colors my feelings about the day. The only reason I celebrate Valentine’s Day is because it happens to be the anniversary of the beginning of my relationship with my husband, but I still feel sympathy and solidarity with those who find the holiday annoying or depressing. Personally, I don’t have any similar baggage with Mother’s Day because I didn’t struggle with infertility and have/had good relationships with my mother and grandmothers, but in the abstract I definitely see how the two holidays are comparable in the way they enforce traditional gender roles through celebrating them.
I think social media makes holidays like these even more oppressive than they have to be through the relentless sharing of pictures of flower arrangements and the competition to have or be the best partner. The comparisons that these joyful status updates engender in those who are excluded from the holiday are what make the celebration’s exclusionary nature so oppressive and hurtful to them. Resisting the urge to show off how loved I am is the best I can do to keep my celebration from hurting anyone else.
Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater
I read Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying years ago and was fascinated by its radical ambiguity. When I saw Slater’s motherhood memoir recommended by Meg from A Practical Wedding, my favorite wedding and marriage blog, I knew I had to read it. Meg was going through a hard pregnancy and she found the book very comforting. When she wrote about her new baby, Meg talked about the first two chapters of this book and how much she related to them. Slater makes a pro/con list about having a baby, and her con list is much, much longer, enumerating the things that I also fear and dread: loss of time and sleep and language, mountains of baby gear and disgusting child culture. I felt like I could have written this list myself. A single item lies on the pro side: learning a new kind of love, somehow outweighing all the rest.
As someone who’s in the middle of a physically easy pregnancy, but anxious about losing my identity and higher brain functions to child-rearing, I found it reassuring to read about a woman who’s even more wary of motherhood than I am. “Given the choice between writing a book and having a baby, I think I’d rather have the book,” Slater says. When I pushed back against the ideology of total motherhood, I met resistance from family members and internet trolls, in addition to my own complicated feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It made me feel good to see a woman take an even bolder stance than I would.
Slater struggles with some severe mental illnesses, and much of the conflict in the first half of the book is about whether or not she’ll take her meds during her pregnancy. She’s worried about the effect they’ll have on the developing baby, of course, since there is so little research on this topic. She goes off them and has some scary episodes of antenatal depression, and then decides with her doctors to re-stabilize herself by going back on her medications. This delicate balance between self-sacrifice and self-care seems to be a theme in pregnancy and new motherhood. Reading about the way Slater navigated this high-wire act helped me to feel ok about the compromises I’m preparing to make.
Once the baby arrives, Slater is surprised at how good she feels. I can’t help but feel envious, even a bit resentful, of her privilege: she can afford a full-time live-in nanny, no wonder having a newborn is easy for her. The other reason it’s relatively easy is because she had already processed her angst about motherhood during her difficult pregnancy. There’s definitely something to be said for front-loading emotional work this way, and I’m trying to do the same myself. I’d recommend this book to any pregnant woman, especially those who are particularly ambivalent, career-focused, or who struggle with mental illness or other health problems.