Sunday, May 9, 2021

Some hasty thoughts for Mother's Day

I think I started getting told I will be "a wonderful mother some day" when I was about twelve years old. It was a pretty frequent refrain in my coming of age, and then time in college and my masters degrees. When I worked as a resident life coordinator, I was called casually,"dorm mom" and I took that title seriously. When Owen and I lived in Leiden I was asked if I was pregnant or "when do you think you'll you have kids?" many, many times. I don't say this to complain, and I do see these comments as compliments, but I only mean to say that that my whole life I've fit the mold of what people think of when they think of "a wonderful mother" without always thinking about what kind of mother I'd like to be.

Mothers do so much of the caregiving in this world. The loving, the feeding, the anticipating of conflict, the peacemaking, the calming, the supporting, the behind the scenes jobs, the basic routines of life, the organizing, the making sure the bag is packed with everything everyone will need, the watching the bags while everyone else engages in the activities, the prep for every emergency, and balm for every hurt. I am a huge fan of nearly all of these tasks, but less of a fan of them always falling to the same portion of society. My hope is that we can move away from the assumption that it's the mother's job to do these things, because I want these things to be everyone's job, and for mothers to also receive care. I worry about the ways in which the work of motherhood is referred to as "priceless" or of "infinite value" as a way of justifying the ways in which women are so often paid nothing for the essential work they do in this world, and even the under-recognition towards mothers is turned inside out as some sort of virtue of humility.

I think about all the women who are not mothers. I know many who are longing to be. I know many who are grieving children who have died. I know so many people mourning the loss of their mothers taken too soon, or whose mothers need care from them instead of the other way around. I know many women who are not mothers because they choose not to be mothers, and I am grateful for them, and sorry for the ways in which their choices are stigmatized while mine are applauded. I loved the years I lived without children, and as much as I love my daughter, this year was not the best year of my life. I'm not putting "be the silver lining in this pandemic" on my child's to do list, even as I'm grateful for the thousand ways she has brought joy into my life this year. As Gloria Steinem says, “A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.” None of us are served by stereotypes, even if they're positive ones.

This year has been a heavy introduction to motherhood with the pandemic adding layers and layers of complication to what would always have been a challenging and isolating time. I've watched myself in my exhaustion share less of myself on social media and more of my child, and in addition to worrying about her privacy, I've also worried about the ways in which my self is being erased from my life, or broken into too many pieces to be meaningfully combined. I remember when friends first started having children how their profiles disappeared behind new photos of their babies, and I too, and figuring out what all of this means. I've shared photos of my daughter growing month by month for several reasons which made sense to me, but I haven't had as much monthly reflection on how I am also growing and changing. I'm not sure any work, any job which is "essentially meaningful," as each has its boredoms and epiphanies, but I do think meaning is a thing we make, and that we often make it though how we live our lives. Owen and I work really hard to make intentional choices, thinking about what we want our life to look like, and what we want it to mean. We had a quote from Fredrick Buechner at our wedding which has this line, "If they have children, they can give them, as well as each other, roots and wings." It's been true of our lives so far, and we're continuing to figure it out together.

Because Dorothea came a little late I had more prenatal visits to the midwives than I was expecting, and at one of them, the midwife asked if I'd be working again and what that looked like for me, and she said something I've not stopped thinking about. Up until that point I'd mostly thought of the pull between my work as a teacher and a scholar and mothering a young child as pulls in opposite directions. That being a mother would make me worse at my job as an academic, and that I'd be less of a mother because I couldn't spend all my time with my child. But that midwife encouraged me to be on the lookout for the ways in which I will have not less but more to give because of the experiences of mothering a child, and even the experience of birth itself. I'm not sure yet what this means or what this will look like as time goes on, but I am, like my daughter, curious. Curious to hear the stories of others because every person has thoughts about parenting-- what they loved from their own parents, and what they wished were different. I want to be able to listen to the differences between myself and others and not see them as an insult or an affront but as another luminous soul making their way in the world. And maybe the forces in my life can be not a tug of war pulling the fabric of my life apart, but like wind in a sail. And even in wind which isn't blowing the direction I want to go, I, as a mother, can find my way.


  1. "And maybe the forces in my life can be not a tug of war pulling the fabric of my life apart, but like wind in a sail. And even in wind which isn't blowing the direction I want to go, I, as a mother, can find my way." I love that. What an empowering way to look at the different aspects of our lives that seem to compete with each other. And I think it's definitely true that being a mother will add to what you can offer to the world and to your work.

    I hear you on so many of your concerns about the way our culture talks about motherhood, both about what the mother's job is and that it's "priceless," etc. You expressed those so eloquently.

    Also, I have always admired how intentional you and Owen are with your lives, and I've especially admired your resilience through this past year.

    1. Thanks, Mary. Thank you also for being a sounding board on so many of these topics.

  2. But that midwife encouraged me to be on the lookout for the ways in which I will have not less but more to give because of the experiences of mothering a child, and even the experience of birth itself.

    Yes! I feel like it's deepened the relationships I can have as a high-school teacher, finally understanding the immense amount of effort and love that has gone into every one of my students, and the immensity of their parents' concern for them. Up until this point it's always been much easier for me to empathize as a student than a parent, but now I am maybe starting to understand that parental side as well.

    Working in a field with a reputation for being cold and mathematical, it also has become a safe and interesting topic of conversation for my students to ask about my kid. And maybe that's a distraction, and maybe it's a little bit like sharing baby pictures on Facebook, but it does seem like it humanizes me in a helpful way. And I really do want to talk about what the experience has been like, because of all the ways that I didn't know what to expect going into it. It's definitely different and more challenging as a working parent, but that becomes one more base of knowledge to teach from. My students seem much better-informed than I was at their age, although in some cases it definitely seems like their moms have guilt-tripped them about how hard pregnancy was!

    And as the parent of a daughter who may someday have to solve the same problem, it becomes even more important for me to find ways to weave the elements of my life together coherently so they can be a model for her. Maybe not one she has to follow, but something to use to navigate the space.


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