Last summer, as I was leaving the maternity ward with my newborn son, I glanced at my hospital notes. Regarding a routine medical matter the nurse had written: “Mother to make follow-up appointment.” “That’s funny,” I thought. “Why would they want my mother to do it?”
Then came the staggering realization: Oh God, they mean me.
Despite the eight pounds of squirming boy in my arms, I could not believe it. It’s weird having a baby. You go into the hospital as one and come out as two. But even weirder still is how you go from having a mother to being a mother. And that was especially strange for me.
My mother has a complicated relationship with motherhood. She wasn’t bad at it; in fact, she was almost perfect. She was a natural-birther, an on-demand breastfeeder, a banana masher, a quilter, a bootie knitter and a cloth-diaper enthusiast, long before attachment parenting and crafting were fashionable. She made maple syrup from the trees in our backyard, for heaven’s sake, something I’m quite certain I’ll never do. When my sister and I were young, Mum stayed home, and I remember her always being there while Dad travelled for work. But ultimately, being a parent didn’t make her feel the way she thought it should have. I’m not putting words in her mouth. Six years ago she wrote a story on the subject for this magazine entitled “Give Me My Life Back,” which ended with the following statement: “If I had known then what I know now I would not have chosen motherhood — and its unbearable love.”
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But she doesn’t actually really regret having had my sister and me. Motherhood was challenging for my mother (she was in her early 20s when she had us, without a career, and married to a man whom she would eventually divorce), but it was irreversible, and for the most part she made the best of it. What she was trying to say in her piece was that motherhood can be disappointing because for the most part it doesn’t feel the way we’re taught to believe it should. Most of us feel, if we are honest, inadequate and ambivalent in a role that is supposed to be both “natural” (that most abused of terms) and the holy grail of human female experience.
The truth is, motherhood is just one life choice among many. It can be wonderful, and it can be awful, and most of the time it is an exquisite mixture of both. Choosing motherhood for me meant choosing noise over quiet, chaos over order and a certain mad, Crayola-stained fullness of life over the serenity of reading Chekhov on a Sunday afternoon. Like anything else, it’s a trade-off. The difference with this one is that once you make it, it’s much safer not to look back. That’s why most mothers (and fathers too) will bitch and moan about the indignities of parenthood and then urge all their childless friends to reproduce “before it’s too late.” My mother isn’t prone to that sort of smug self-justification. She looks back at her life and thinks, “What if...?”
It’s extremely annoying. And I love her for it. Anyway, I thought I’d forgotten all about it, this business of my mother’s ambivalence toward motherhood, but then during my pregnancy there was a nagging voice in the back of my brain that pestered me at 3 a.m. when my hips were sore and I couldn’t sleep. It posed helpful questions like, “What if you’re too selfish to be a mother? What if you resent the hell out of your baby? What if you feel nothing but revulsion when he cries like that screaming brat on the bus yesterday? What if you’re miserable and end up running off to Mexico with a cabana boy?”
And I’d reply, “But I’ve never even met a cabana boy!”
Voice: “You get the drift.”
After a few weeks of being pestered by the Voice, I went to see a therapist who suggested that maybe — just maybe — I was secretly afraid of turning into my mother and that my pregnancy was forcing this fear to the surface.
“Well, there’s a therapist earning her keep,” I grumbled to myself as I waddled out of the office that day. But of course she was right. Oooh, how I hate it when a therapist is right — especially about something so banal. Who isn’t afraid of turning into her mother?
But the good news is that once I’d had my son — in an epic botched natural home birth turned emergency C-section that left me more physically traumatized than I’ve ever been, including the time I broke my ankle falling down the stairs in high heels at a Miami nightclub — I didn’t feel ambivalent at all. Instead, I fell instantly and passionately in love with him, just like all the New Age hippie books say. For weeks, all I wanted to do was lie in bed and feed him, count the hairs on his perfect head (146, to be exact), squeeze his chubby thighs, nibble his fingers and lick his little ears like a mama cat. I was so pleased with myself for giving birth to the most beautiful baby ever, I thought I might actually die of self-satisfaction. I didn’t risk taking him outside, because other people might see how gorgeous he was and fly into a jealous rage. Eventually when I did venture out I was overwhelmed with pity for the other mothers in the park. No wonder they looked so sad and aimless, plodding behind their Bugaboos. They didn’t have my baby.
It was a strange, dreamy and obviously not entirely sane period that I can describe only as physical in the most essential way. For those first few weeks my body was my destiny, and my destiny was this magical, mewling little alien who’d just emerged from it. There was just him and me. And his dad, Rob, to bring us cups of tea and buttered toast. In short, everything was perfect.
Eventually, however, the euphoric hormonal cocktail abated, and the broken nights began to take their toll. For a while I was so tired I felt dirty all the time, as if an oily veil hung over my face. I’d ask Rob to turn on the thing that boils water, with the handle and the spout — what’s it called again? I couldn’t read, so instead I watched every single episode of Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and Game of Thrones, though now I can’t remember a single detail from any of them. One night, about 10 weeks in, Rob came home late from work and found the baby shrieking and me in tears, the two of us having a big ol’ bawlfest, keening, wailing, two hot, puffy red faces, snot and tears everywhere.
He called a nanny, who started the next day. A couple of weeks after that, I was back in my home office, writing full-time, which was a much easier transition than I’d worried it would be. I love my baby, you see. But I also love my work. Returning to it was a huge relief to me — though admittedly it helped that my office is next door to my son’s nursery. I also napped. A lot.
Many of my friends who are mothers told me they couldn’t imagine going back to work as early as I did after having my son, that they “just weren’t in work mode” for at least a year after giving birth. If I’d had corporate maternity benefits I might have felt the same way — but deep down inside, I doubt it. I’ve spent so long writing every day that it felt alien not to do it. I was happy to concede my work for the first few delirious weeks with my son, but after that I wanted my life back.
In her controversial new book on work and motherhood, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO and mother of two Sheryl Sandberg says modern women spend too much time worrying about work-life balance and too little time making the necessary sacrifices for success. We pull back when we should be leaning in, she writes, in a book that has enraged career-focused feminists and conservative stay-at-home mothers alike.
Princeton professor and writer Anne-Marie Slaughter, on the other hand, declares Sandberg is wrong, and women can’t have it all (as if anyone ever could). After quitting her dream job as Hillary Clinton’s director of policy to return to a tenured teaching post at Princeton, where she could better parent her two teenaged sons, Slaughter wrote, “suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange....I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all....Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”
I understand what these women are saying, but something about the whole debate saddens and exhausts me. Must successful, articulate women really alternate between blaming ourselves and “the workplace” for our lurking feelings of inadequacy and guilt? My baby is not even crawling yet, and I am sick of hearing about how hopeless my situation is, how I will never, no matter how many books I write or blueberry spelt muffins I bake, feel up to the terrible, impossible task of working motherhood.
Brain tumours are impossible. Earthquakes are impossible. Fleeing to a refugee camp after the rebels set fire to your mud hut is impossible. Having a child and a career? It’s tricky, but as life problems go, surely this is one we should be happy to have.
My point is not that mothers need to suck it up (on the contrary, there is nothing I love more than a good long bitch session in a girlfriend’s kitchen) but that this debate stems not from our reality — which, on the whole, assuming you are a middle-class Canadian, is pretty good — but from our feelings of deep inadequacy. The real problem is that evil 3 a.m. voice. The one that whispers, “You silly girl, can’t you see you’re doing it all wrong?”
The only reasonable answer, of course, is, “Yeah, okay, maybe, but so what?” Like every other mother on the planet, I often feel like a big fraud, like I’m fumbling along in a world full of conflicting advice, smothering my son when I should be letting him soothe himself, hiding in my office on a deadline when I should be encouraging him to feed himself fistfuls of organic blanched kale. I feel like a screw-up half the time, but you know what? As far as I can tell, that’s what motherhood is.
It’s other things too: a warm bath with a dimpled pixie. Laughter so infectious you lose all adult dignity trying to keep it coming. Tiny starfish hands reaching up, up, up for no one else but you.
My mother had children young and raised us without the benefit of help or a job to turn to when she was feeling bored or stifled by motherhood. I am older, with the benefit of a career and full-time child care, and so far I’m feeling pretty lucky.
I spent the first 35 years of my life not having children, and I was pretty good at it. Now I’ll spend the next 35 (and more) as a mother. Will I be any good at that? When he’s old enough, ask my son. In the meantime, I’ll muddle along and love him the only way I know how: fully, completely and unbearably — because that’s how my own mother loved me. And I didn’t turn out so badly. Right, Mum?