We become mothers because of desire.
It starts internally – a nudge, a feeling, a question.
Do I want to have a baby? Mmm, my sister’s baby is so cute. Am I ready?
It continues as a wish: I want to have a baby.
How we get this want fulfilled can happen in many ways – either with a partner or alone, through birth or adoption or surrogacy, or stepmothering or other mothering.
And then it happens. Wish granted. Desire satisfied. Goal achieved.
But, no. It doesn’t always happen this way. We can become pregnant through force, or accident, or unconsciousness, as well.
In my last two columns, we discussed the intricacies – personal, cultural, and historical – of desiring natural motherhood. This month, I’d like to shift our discussion from the subject of desire to being.
What does it mean to be a natural mother?
To answer that question, I’d like to share three of my poems about motherhood and then reflect on the ways they show us the different meanings of “being a natural mother.”
This first one was written at the very beginning of my mothering journey in the early 1990s when I was not yet even married but had begun to care for the girl who would become my stepdaughter.
America, my mother
America, my mother, why is it so hard to be
read Allen Ginsberg in the seminary,
then he broke out,
pierced my mother twice, to make us.
It occurs to me that I am America, he said,
once in fumbling,
once in rage.
lost somewhere, riding Carolina,
a redneck in a sportscar,
drinking like his father,
who married my mother, who says,
It's nobody's fault
but your own.
I would have called you Corey,
from the core of me,
they cut you out of me.
After the priest, first laughing, then said,
he could not absolve me
all this wishing will never make you a boy.
It is fun to be a girl, I say,
trying to make you see
how pretty I am. See how pretty, I say,
making you look
in the mirror.
America, my mother, why is it so hard to be
I see now in this poem how the difficulty of “being natural” is written into the form of the poem itself. “America, the mother” is both a literal mother and the symbolic mother for a nation. The poem asks how a mother can (is able, should be able, fails to) create a family out of pain and difference.
The truth is I don’t have a brother. I don’t have a son. And I didn’t, then, have a daughter. Not literally. Not “naturally.”
I had a stepbrother. The son of my stepfather. In this poem, he becomes “my brother.”
And I had had an ectopic pregnancy. In the poem, he becomes “my son.”
And my partner had a daughter who would become my stepdaughter. In the poem, she becomes “my daughter,” but even this is problematic, as she prefers to dress like a boy, identifies with her father, and wants nothing to do with my femininity.
Here’s what I see now, twenty years later: motherhood is never completely natural, and for so many of us it does not come with pink or blue balloons and happily ever after. Motherhood, like a nation, is a construction born not out of what is “natural” but what is real. Motherhood, like a nation, is made from the diversity of what we find within ourselves and in each other and what we make out of this union – in a spirit of love and inclusion and acceptance of difference.
The next poem was written twelve years ago in December, right around this time of year, as I was preparing to celebrate my daughter’s first birthday.
While the world prepares for Christmas,
the birth of another woman’s son,
I notice the snow globe under our tree
is broken, the morning you turn one.
I wonder, worry — how I have worried
this year! — at the omen, then take out
the photo of our family at noon, and turn
it away from the crack, so now it is hidden,
invisible except from the back.
I have learned to do this as a mother,
find buttons that almost match,
buy shoes to replace those you’ve lost,
turn snow globes and do mountains of wash.
Nothing is as clean as you were that morning,
covered in white and glossy and wet.
I touched your temple, so light, with my finger,
rubbed the cream of your skin into my thumb,
felt such wonder at what I had done.
Today you will laugh and wave to balloons,
and tonight you will say, for the first time, “moon.”
But for now you are sleeping, an afternoon nap
to prepare for the party, and the house is quiet,
and I can pretend, breathing hard and filling my belly,
that you are still in me, a silent fish in my inner stream,
and all is still possible, and you have not left me,
and today I have nothing to do but dream.
Here is another instance of the way “natural mothering” demands that we come to terms with loss. Just as the first poem forces us to face the shattering of the image of the “ideal” family and nation, this poem, quite literally, shatters the ideal image, as the snow globe holding the family photo is cracked.
For the truth of “natural mothering” is that life and death are a package deal. The ancient story of Pandora (meaning “all gifts”) teaches us this. Pandora did not open a box to let out evil upon the world; this was a mistranslation.
When the sixteenth century Dutch scholar, Erasmus, was translating the story of Pandora from the Greek version he found in Hesiod's eighth century B.E. text, he mistranslated pithos as pyxis. What we know as Pandora's box was originally a vase.
Think of the shape of a vase. Its female curves. The beautiful flowers it can embrace. The cool water. It is this vase that, when tipped over, symbolizes the womb from which all life comes.
And when it tips, it also brings death. And loss. Every moment of every day as a mother is one less day you have a baby, or a toddler, or a teenager, or a son or daughter who lives with you.
This is what a “natural mother” is meant to do – allow the child to grow, to let go, to let what was a baby become an adult, separate and strong, because of the maturity of the mother who knows all along that time passes and (as Raffi sings) everything grows and grows and grows.
The last poem I want to share is the final poem in my book, The Pomegranate Papers.*
Woman Births Century at Midlife
Alphabet hangs in the sky, on the wall, in my room
in the dark before dawn, giving me words in languages
that rise and fall like civilizations or notes from a song:
Styx is the river of memory, Res are the things I forgot,
Age is what is waiting for me, Faith is becoming what
I am not. Os are my bones, not yet brittle, Dia is the day
still ahead. Mort is the death I belittle. Nue is my naked
belly, daily needing to be fed. No longer baby, and not
yet old woman, I stand poised on the brink of midlife.
I am learning from nature how to be human, to survive
and give birth, and at the same time, be the midwife.
I end with this poem because it is about the process of being a “natural mother” to oneself. This process is, from the beginning, one of combining cultures and languages and histories – as all these divergent rivers flow through one body – the mother’s body.
Regardless of our situations, we all mother naturally by being fully present in our bodies and responding in a spirit of love and inclusion and acceptance of difference.
This loving response includes ourselves, as we learn to “be the midwife.” For no matter our differences as mothers, we all share one thing, and this, in the end, is all that it means to “be a natural mother.” To be the mothers we are, right now, in this body, fully human and alive and yet also moving towards death, accepting of all of it, embracing all that we are and can be, and nurturing ourselves and each other, in this life.
*Special offer for LM Readers:
Use code GP7DNYJM to get 25% off from Unbound Content, the independent, mother-owned publisher of Cassie Premo Steele’s poetry book and musical album released in 2012!
New Year, New Poems: I invite you to submit your poems on the theme of Being a Natural Mother. I especially encourage submissions from those whose poems reflect on the themes of this column — mothering in diversity, mothering as stepmothering and other mothering, and mothering outside of typical gendered constructs. I hope to publish three poems, so send in one or two and encourage your mother writer friends to do the same. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by January 6th. Be sure to put "Birthing the Mother Writer: 7" in the subject line, include a brief bio and place both the bio and the text of your poem in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.