One day this past spring, a few months after I gave birth to my son, a mother stopped me at my daughter's preschool. "You look great," she said. Rather than smile, however, the woman frowned. She was eight months pregnant, retaining water, and clearly uncomfortable. As she shifted in front of me, I wanted to tell her how far from great I felt. My son had slept poorly, and I had spent two hours in the middle of the night slumped in a rocking chair, battling a resentment that left me ragged and exhausted. Yet I did not know how to break through the woman's perception that everything was fine, and so we just stood there, silent.
That silence wasn't an unusual occurrence. Indeed, I'm endlessly surprised by how hard it is to talk about the complexities of motherhood with other mothers. Everyone's stories and experiences are different, and you'd think this would validate the need to talk more, and more often, and to disseminate and distribute a wider array of stories. Instead, we silence ourselves, wary of offending others for the choices they have made, wary of revealing our vulnerabilities and doubts to someone who might judge us against the impossible cultural ideal—a woman who sheds the baby weight easily, is never self-conscious, and even in the midst of sleepless nights will look at an infant's tiny features and melt into a puddle of joy. The ideal is unrealistic, of course, but that does not stop us from using it as a ruler.
I'm endlessly surprised by how hard it is to talk about the complexities of motherhood with other mothers.
For instance, I married my college boyfriend and had my first child when I was 26, not altogether unusual for a white, middle-class woman who grew up Catholic and went to college. However, I am also an academic mother, and thus I am surrounded by women who either choose not to have children or who carefully plan them around tenure, sometimes waiting so long that they encounter issues with fertility. As a result, babies in this group tend to be deeply, deeply wanted, and these highly educated women tend to be fairly obsessed, researching and interrogating childbirth practices, hiring doulas, and committing to attachment parenting. Indeed, the women I know who breastfeed long-term are either stay at home moms or academic mothers, likely because the two groups have more in common than we often think. They both do things fully. All the way in. They are 100 percent committed.
In some ways, I contribute to this stereotype. I deeply, deeply, wanted my daughter. I read everything about birth practices, breastfed for twenty-seven months, and only fed her organic, homemade baby food. In other ways I'm an anomaly. My older child may have been deeply wanted, but my younger child resulted from an unplanned pregnancy. I did not, actually, want to be pregnant, and in light of that fact, it is very easy to judge myself according to how I perceive these other academic women—women who are driven and who have claimed control of their bodies and their careers—and to feel belittled and less-than-perfect in comparison, because if I really had claimed control of my body and my future, I would still only have one child rather than two.
Such regret, it turns out, is difficult to discuss. A few months ago, I attended a writing conference designed to encourage and support women writers in a field that still privileges the work of men. One of the panels discussed how to balance motherhood and writing, and when someone asked the panelists if they ever resented their children for taking time away from their writing, each of the panelists quickly said, "No, of course not!" almost aghast, as if that was the strangest question. The room promptly fell into silence.
At the time, I was still nursing the son I had unintendedly conceived, my breasts were full, and soon enough I'd carry my breast pump in its black bag to the single-stall bathroom, where I'd sit self-consciously for fifteen minutes, shivering in the draft from the high window, listening to the pump's conspicuous beeping, and cringing each time another attendee tested the doorknob. I resented having to pump in that bathroom, having to pump in many awkward bathrooms. When I longed to read and write but couldn't because my children were young and needed me, I sometimes—no, let's be honest, I often—resented those caretaking tasks and the time they required. It's not that I resented my children, themselves—their individualities, the smell of sweat in their hair, their knobby knees and pursed lips—but rather the time childrearing took away from other things I loved to do, things I loved to do sometimes more than supervising my kids, and thus I sometimes wondered if I should have made different choices.
I wanted to ask those panelists to tell me about their darkest moments, the moments they longed to write, but couldn't.
I wanted to ask those panelists, those women writers who sat in the front of the room and admitted to struggling to find time to write, to tell me about their darkest moments, the moments they longed to write, but couldn't. The moments a book, or a project, or a life goal felt just beyond their reach because they had to go to the grocery store or tend to a vomiting child. "In those moments," I wanted to ask, "do you ever miss the time you once had? Do you ever feel it was too much of a sacrifice? Do you ever regret having children?" But I didn't, which now strikes me as unfortunate, because is that really such a terrible, or even uncommon thought? To sometimes feel lost? To accept that sometimes parents do indeed feel regret?
I was still thinking about these questions a few months later, when I took my daughter to the public library in order to waste time. It was the end of her winter break, and I had run out of ways to entertain her. What I really wanted was to be alone. To work on an essay and read by myself. Instead, I read her children's books and followed her around and pretended to eat plastic pizza off of a plastic plate in the play area, and then I sat next to her at the preschool computers while she clicked through a series of letter and number games. A large, bright sign reminded me not to leave her unattended. The adult section was across the building. I didn't want to spend all day on my phone, so I just sat there, people watching, and for a long time the only other adult in the room was a mother about my age with four young girls. The woman, unlike me, had clearly spent time that morning straightening her hair and putting on makeup, and she appeared a whole lot more content than I felt as her four young girls pranced through the children's area, placing copious amounts of library books in the gigantic canvas bag she'd brought for the occasion. The mother seemed happy. I expected she was probably never, ever, plagued with resentment or regret.
After I wallowed in self-pity for a while, wondering, for a brief moment, if my own children would be better off with a mother like her, the well-groomed mother of four told her children it was time to leave. They fussed a bit, begging to stay longer, and the woman raised her voice when the second youngest tore off. The woman sighed, defeated. "I'm so, so sorry for the noise," she said as she passed me, and the entire situation suddenly struck me as absurd.
Maybe that mother was content at the library that day, but maybe she wasn't. Just like I am sometimes content to watch my children play, while other times I yearn for a distraction. Yes, it would be nice if I was always involved—if all parents were always blissfully involved—but involvement 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a pretty high expectation, and in the long run not all that healthy for the children. Why are we holding ourselves to such high expectations? Pretending that we love it, 100 percent, when to be honest, a child is a child, a lot of fun, yes, but also a lot of work, very little of it uncomplicated. Indeed, I find it quite ironic that we accept a whole lot of complexity—including resentment and regret—in relationships between parents and older children, but not between parents and elementary kids or infants. When my siblings and I were in middle school, my mother proudly wore a T-shirt that read: Mothers of teenagers know why some animals eat their young. It usually brought a knowing laugh. Teenagers and young adults can be a challenge; we accept this as life.
Or perhaps we do. I once took a poetry workshop with a woman who encouraged us to "enter the cave" and write about the fears and memories that scared us. She'd give us a prompt, send us out of the room, and then we'd reconvene in a half hour to share, unedited, what we had written. The workshop leader would read what she wrote as well, and her own poems tended to explore her relationships with her adult children, including her son, someone who had disappointed her by turning conservative and adopting a corporate lifestyle. The poems dripped with regret, confliction, and grief. It was clear that, though she loved the male child who once clung to her nightgown, she didn't entirely love who her son had become.
What I remember most about that experience is the uneasy glances passed between a few other students and me as she read. We felt embarrassed, listening to her, not because we didn't trust the authenticity of her feelings, but because her feelings did not affirm the world as it should be. How could a mother not love her son? What did she do wrong?
When her story did not present a mother as nurturing, self-sacrificing, and capable of unconditional love—everything we'd been taught to value—we censored her.
It embarrasses me now to think about that judgment—the way we so quickly turned to blame her as a parent, as if her inattentiveness was the cause of her son's distancing—but also the way we so quickly moved to silence her, to critique her decision to write about her son in those ways. Why would she do that? What would he think? She's ruining any chance of reconciliation, we whispered to each other after class. I know, now, that we were young and naïve, yet in silencing her we nonetheless enforced patriarchal ideals. When her story did not present a mother as nurturing, self-sacrificing, and capable of unconditional love—everything we'd been taught to value—we censored her.
I recently read Rebecca Solnit's book The Mother of All Questions, which includes an extended meditation on the politics of silence. "Silence," Solnit writes, "is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one's humanity. And the history of silence is central to women's history." In a compelling—and sometimes overwhelming—case, Solnit lists the many ways women have been silenced as a result of the patriarchy, from the ways most religions and courts have historically denied women a voice, to the way medical studies continue to examine PTSD primarily in war veterans rather than victims of sexual abuse, even though rape causes PTSD far more often. One of Solnit's responses to such silencing is to validate women's stories and the telling of women's stories, in all shapes and forms:
We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.
Interestingly enough, the complexity of motherhood is one of the subjects women aren't particularly encouraged to explore. Though women, over time, have given themselves permission to write about a great many issues, many still hesitate to write about motherhood or their children. In an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times, Sarah Menkedick discusses her initial tendency to "apologize" for writing about motherhood. "Patriarchal culture," she observes, "has reduced motherhood to an exercise no serious artist would tackle as a subject." Other female writers cite their children's privacy as the reason they avoid the subject. At a conference, I once heard a female writer make a convincing argument that writing about her children took away their agency. She said she could write about her ex-lovers, her parents, and her friends because they were adults, perfectly capable of writing back if they disagreed with her presentation. Her school-aged children, on the other hand, could not. She didn't feel like she could infringe on her children's privacy before they understood the implications of publication and were capable of giving consent.
Plenty has been written about the ethics of writing about others, especially about family, and I agree that we should not write about those we know without carefully considering the implications and consequences. I also understand that many fathers have similar qualms. Scott Russell Sanders once said he wrote about his children when they were very young, but after they became preteens and teenagers, he stopped. He no longer felt like those were his stories to tell. Only when his children were adults, and he could ask for their permission, did he begin again. I admire him for this approach and the thought he put into it, just as I admire each and every female writer for the sometimes uncomfortable decisions she comes to when she chooses what and what not to share about her experience as a parent.
Why are we so afraid to know what mothers think of their children?
However, I'm also wary of this self-censorship, especially when women, whose stories have been silenced for such a very, very long time, remain the primary caregivers even in households with two working parents. What does it mean when a female writer cannot share and describe what could very likely have been one of the most transformative experiences of her life? Why are we so afraid to know what mothers think of their children? (If our experiences were only positive, only uplifting, we would not hesitate.) Is it because such stories would remove a veil about motherhood that we as a culture are not ready to confront? The mother who does not and is not willing to sacrifice 100 percent for her children? The mother who perhaps doesn't always like her children? (Can I say it…the mother who sometimes regrets mothering?)
At its core, parenthood is biological—a unique mix of hormones spikes during puberty, developing sexual organs and propelling males and females alike to show an interest in things they hadn't shown an interest in before. We joke about this "teenage sex drive," and when teenage girls claim they never want kids, we often say, "Oh, just wait until you are 25 or 30," in part because many women do, indeed, experience a biological, hormonal desire for children around that age, a desire they may or may not choose to follow. The drive to reproduce and sustain a species is entirely natural, and there are all sorts of hormones involved with pregnancy and child rearing that help us be loving, form attachments, and thus perpetuate our species.
But if oxytocin and other hormones drive our compulsion to reproduce and love our children, the stresses of caring for those children can trigger cortisol levels that lead to frustration and regret. Both types of emotions are equally natural; they are all embodied responses to our lives on this earth. As a result, we need to stop using their existence as a means of judgment and instead recognize the ways that, from a distance, analyzed across the span of evolution, one mother is actually no different from the rest. Our child-rearing practices may differ, morphing with each decade and generation, but we all birth children, rear them, and raise them. When it comes to generations and eons, our individual significance is dwarfed within the interconnectedness of it all.
I'm tired of thinking the perfect mother exists out there, and that if I captured enough of those qualities or adopted the right strategies I could ensure a safe journey for my own kids.
I'm tired of thinking the perfect mother exists out there, and that if I captured enough of those qualities or adopted the right strategies I could ensure a safe journey for my own kids. I can't. I'm also tired of holding myself up to some perfect ideal and letting my failure to meet that ideal silence me. One of the most haunting memoirs about mothers I've read is Terry Tempest Williams's When Women Were Birds, which recounts the complicated reaction Williams had on finding that each of her mother's fifty-four journals was blank. Her mother was a matriarch in a Mormon family, a culture in which women traditionally kept journals. In light of that heritage, Williams struggled to understand her mother's decision not to write down her own story, and she struggled to decide whether her mother's silence was a sign of strength and agency or not. I think of Williams's mother and what regrets those journals might have contained, and I think of a friend's mother, the matriarch of a Catholic family, who had eight children but in her elderly years was wracked with the guilt that she'd contributed unnecessarily to global population growth. I think of the Quaker writer Hannah Whitall Smith, who in 1852 wrote in her diary:
I am very unhappy now. That trial of my womanhood which to me is so very bitter has come upon me again. When my little Ellie is 2 years old she will have a little sister or brother. And this is the end of all my hopes, my pleasing anticipations, my returning youthful joyousness. Well, it is a woman's lot and I must try to become resigned and bear it in patience and silence and not make my home unhappy because I am so. But oh, how hard it is.
We all feel regret. Regret needs to become part of the story. Not something that defines women, but something they can admit to without fear of judgment, and thus move through. If I silence my regret, hold it deep in my chest, it burns and it grows, and that is no help to anyone. If other mothers, on the other hand, told me, "yes, I've felt that, too," the regret would lighten and leave, and I perhaps could look at my children in those moments without judging myself as a mother. Because what I'm most interested in, after all, isn't the perfect parent who wanted her children deeply and was enamored with every moment, but the woman who wasn't always enamored, yet who cared for and loved her children just the same. Hers, I believe, is the greater story of courage and love. She's the woman who has something to teach me. The woman who I think has something to teach us all.