Friday, November 21, 2008

Motherhood



Motherhood.

What does that word evoke for you?

Last weekend, while dining in a restaurant with Jason and our girls, I saw the personification of that word for me. Two couples were sitting at the table next to us. One childless, the other with a precious little girl, who I would guess was about a year old.

As I often do (with such unabashed delight), I eavesdropped. The dad and the childless couple were discussing all sorts of office issues and how the economy was affecting change in company policy and the delights (or not) of daily commuting. The young wife was speaking with a new sense of adulthood, proud of her maturity as a grown woman; a married, yet independent professional. Her husband was enjoying the social experience of dining with friends. Across the table, the dad was engaging joyfully in the conversation. Happy to be out with friends. Proud of his latest success in life: fatherhood. But, one look at the mom's face and I had to fight the urge to cry and take her hand and run with her to anywhere. Anywhere but where people had no idea what she was feeling and experiencing in that moment. She needed understanding. She needed to feel a sense of belonging. And it wasn't going to come from any of the lovely people sitting at her table.

Motherhood evokes blackness for me. A loss of self. Yes, there's joy too. But that's overrated (in the early years). The fact is, motherhood is the great divide between youth and experience, freedom and dependence. I do love being a mother, but those early years… well, you moms know what I'm saying. I wish someone had told me….

American society (as seen on TV, magazines, movies, and books) packages motherhood as an image of pastel cooing, quiet softness, and women who are transformed into warm, lovely creatures who give of themselves unconditionally. When I got pregnant I cheered. I had been hoping to start on life's grandest adventure. And everyone I knew beamed with anticipation. People were genuinely happy for us. Support for pregnancy could be found everywhere: the monthly OB visits, friends and colleagues who were already moms, neighbors, even strangers in the grocery store provided friendly advice. All cares were focused on "mom".

Delivery was an amazing, inspiring event despite the hard work (I was fortunate to deliver naturally-- no drugs, no interventions). I was well prepared. For two weeks life was grand. That hormonal high was wonderful, the baby was beautiful, and life felt like an exciting adventure. Then everyone went back to their routines, their daily lives, their comforts.

Except me. For me, life was changed forever. And no one seemed to notice. When visiting, all focus was on the baby. No one seemed to notice that I was no longer me. I didn't know where my pre-baby self went, but I missed her terribly. Because in her place was an exhausted, depressed, over-sensitive caregiving machine. Insurance paid for one post-partum OB visit. When I walked into my doctor's office she said the sweetest words that I had heard in all of my six weeks of motherhood: "I don't want to talk about the baby. I want to talk about you." But fifteen minutes doesn't last long enough.

I have since read and learned much about motherhood. How our society masks the truth about motherhood. How our quest for independence and small, self-contained nuclear families inhibits women from receiving adequate support in early motherhood. How we are considered a "container crazy" society that deprives our infants of necessary touch. How there are cultures in the world whose babies don't cry (not because their babies are aliens, LOL), but because of mothering practices. And how poorly we educate our children about the job of parenting (though those new computerized dolls sound great-- a far cry from the egg that my partner and I nurtured for 2 weeks in tenth grade!).

So I sat in polite silence, preserving the privacy of our neighboring table in that restaurant. But my heart has been with that mom all week. I hope she finds her "self" soon. I hope she holds her head high as her world focuses on diapers and sleep issues and daily routines that consist of a neverending string of 10 minute tasks. I hope that her friends and family don't leave her behind as they grow socially and professionally, all the while telling her that she's doing "the most important job of all." And I hope that she finds others who understand and give her a sense of belonging in the world.

28 comments:

Ello said...

You know the other self protective motherhood thing is that alot of the dark ages has numbed over time. But when I read this, they came clearly back to life. The worries, the frustrations, the anger and the depression. People really never talk about how hard motherhood is. But I think it is because no matter how hard it is to go through the motherhood bit, the precious faces of our darling children make it all worthwhile.

But I agree, having a new mothers network that really understands and can empathize with you is really important.

Sarah Hina said...

Oh, Aine, this was so beautifully stated!! And so true. Every time I see a new mother, or a pregnant one, I feel the same way.

I was completely unprepared, too. Absolutely ignorant. But it didn't take me long (within the first few days) to realize that my life had changed forever, and that this involved a level of sacrifice and loss of identity that was going to be a perpetual struggle for me to cope with. It was black. You're right. Thank goodness it's gotten so much brighter.

Ello is right--it is all worthwhile. And knowing what kind of mom you are, I know you reap so many rewards. But that doesn't gloss over the hard times, and the desire to lighten the load of others. Our society does need to prioritize motherhood more. And moms need to know that, in spite of it being "the most important job of all," it's critical to look after themselves first, to seek that support, so that they have that strength to face another day. No one should feel so alone.

(I did the egg thing, too! It cracked. ;))

JaneyV said...

I was lucky enough to grow up in a large extended family where there were always children and new babies. We have a lot of women in my family too (I'm one of 5 girls) so babies and baby-making were a big part of my reality. However I live in a different country to my family and I felt totally isolated for the first two years of motherhood. I had a Mommy group I met once a week but that was it. I wasn't depressed - I actually loved being a mother from the get-go (which I put down to my baby-centric upbringing) but what was utterly missing from the experience was the support and love of women. The way that society has evolved has worn away the important network of female support from the generations that have gone before. If I had been at home I would have had my sisters around me taking the pressure off.

Another thing I wasn't prepared for was how little I'd see my husband. We'd worked together and so had spent every minute of the day in each other's company. When I had my eldest he suddenly left at 7.30am and didn't return till 8.30pm. I missed him too.

Still I adored my baby and I embraced the changes that came with him. When he was two he started at a pre-school and suddenly I had a social life again. I've never looked back.

Vesper de Vil said...

Yes, yes, yes! I know exactly what you mean! I've been thinking about this exact topic lately...so this might get long...

I became a mother at the age of 21. I was married at 19. I looked like a teenager when I had my son, so I had to face all the teenage pregnancy assumptions and false pity that all kinds of strangers forced on me. Though my husband (now ex) and I were thinkers/academics and thought of ourselves as post-modern regarding parenting and the roles of men and women in parenthood, all these old traditional and nostalgic ideas came out in both of us. I grew up in the Bible Belt, so even though I had grown so much intellectually/mentally/emotionally, the deep-seated notions of what it meant to be a mother came out in me, and in my husband, in full force. Not all the time, mind you, since it was a battle between opposing directions and inclinations. What do I want more...to be identified as a mother or an independent thinker? What did my husband want more...to support his family as his father did or to support the livelihoods of two independent adults?

It was expected that I be the primary caregiver. At first, I took on this role with great gusto, but having already half-completed a BA in English, I'd had a taste of the university life and the wonderful places ideas and university interaction could take me. By the time my son was two years old, I felt like a wild lion in a cage. I was still at home 7 days a week, and I had to do SOMETHING! I felt like I was going insane!!! I took a part-time job as a medical receptionist. Though I adored my boss, that job did not answer to my deepest needs.

At the point when our marriage was already beginning to deteriorate, I began to ask my husband if I could go back to school full-time. I was in the position of asking for his permission!!! And he said...NO! Fatherhood, to him, had solidified in the more traditional route, and I had not expected it. Parenthood to him now meant saving, investing, not taking risks or adventures anymore. What would I do with a degree as a family woman? I didn't know it then, but that refusal was the last straw. He no longer saw me the way I saw myself, nor did he recognize who I'd become during all those days of sitting alone with my baby, yearning for intellectual engagement, challenges, and community.

Charles Gramlich said...

This was a great essay. I really had no idea of much of this. My son was adopted so my wife was never actually pregnant, although she probably experienced some of these elements.

I can't really address most of this either, never having been or ever going to be a mother. All I know is that becoming a father was the most awesome joy of my life. I had always wanted to be one, and it did not dissapoint.

Geraldine said...

What a powerful piece Aine. You have shared so many thoughts and emotions that I am sure moms everywhere would share. It is true, the baby is always the focus, not the mom who made that miracle possible. And what hard work indeed, often underrated and not appreciated for all that it is. Thank you for this lovely, thoughtful post. It was touching and thought provoking too.

Hugs, G

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Your post should be published in Parents Magazine or somewhere.

My Gosh, Aine, I had a novella written here. Then I erased it. Then I wrote another long message, which came from a different perspective - then I erased that.

I just think it is an important topic. Mothers love being with their babies- but we have to get back in touch with who we are just a little bit. We are "mom" but we are also an individual with many facets that need enriching if we are to succeed at anything - especially motherhood. (too long a sentence - but I'm not erasing anything else!) Mothers, esp new moms, should take some time each week and do something for themselves - it will make you a better mother. You will feel more rounded as a person - and less likely to feel resentment toward your husband or God forbid your little one.

I think I am rambling again - I'm going to hit the sack. I am seeing double - no wait a minute...yeppp, trippple!

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

P.S. - Is that a Mary Cassatt? I don't recognize it as hers...but certainly looks very much like her style, color, and technique. I really like it. :)

Aine said...

Wow! Thanks for all of your discussion-worthy comments! I am still awed by this whole blogger thing. To have people respond to my thoughts and observations is so validating. I often feel that I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said. So-- thank you for sharing your responses to my ramblings!

Ello~ You are so right! It is a wonderful defense mechanism that the raw memories fade and our love for our children outshines the hardships (if it didn't, our species would've gone extinct long ago.) Perhaps that is the root of the problem of the lack of realistic discussion/preparation for new moms-- the experienced moms downplay the reality because the reality has been muted in their memory.

Sarah~ Thank you!! Just knowing that such a bleak experience is "normal" is so helpful. Even that would lighten the burden for many new moms.

Your identity is shining now. You have a strong individuality that is inspiring. And with each year, as your children become less dependent, you will feel more ease with the balancing act!

(Mine didn't crack, but I remember feeling so stressed during the time that the egg was with "dad". My grade was dependent on his actions as well... ugh!)
:)

Janey~ Thank you so much for sharing your experience! You have validated my theories. It is that female support network (particularly older family members) that makes the difference. And the exposure to life with babies while we are growing up. My sister was 13 when my brother and I were born, so she helped "mother" us. She was well prepared, and consequently quite happy with her first motherhood experience, too.

Vesper de Vil~ Yours is a wonderful story to share! Thank you! The struggle with integrating motherhood into our identity without losing what came before is not talked about enough (in my estimation). And the fact of your age is facinating to me. I have wondered if my experience is partly due to starting at 31. Since it has become typical for women to establish a career first, I wondered if the identity struggle is from adding motherhood to a more solidified professional identity, rather than starting early adulthood as a mother and adding the professional identity to that. But clearly, your experience opposes my theory. That leads me to believe that societal expectations and values have a greater impact. In other words, the fact that motherhood is no longer valued as the pinnacle of a woman's potential, leads to greater struggles for our generations than those that lived before us. Hmmm... thanks for giving me more to ponder!

Charles~ Your response is invaluable to me. Thank you! I imagine that most fathers are insulated from the darkest struggles because they don't feel as great a sense of loss (unless they become stay-at-home dads). Dads that return to work maintain the sense of identity that they had pre-baby while adding fatherhood elements to themselves. Glad your experience was so positive (as it should be!)

Geraldine~ Thanks! Mothers do need more support than most people realize. And the blame does lie partly with us moms-- we tend to pretend all is well.

Kaye~ Yes, making "me" time is extremely important. And I so appreciate your struggle with writing a comment. There are so many aspects and perspectives to the issue. I could go on and on, too! :)

Jason and I shared a LOL about your PS (and I'm flattered by your comparison!). That's a "Jason Evans" photo of me (ha!) with our youngest daughter (taken during her first hour of life). I played with photoshop to give it the pencilled appearance. Glad you liked it!
:)

Kaycie said...

The thing I remember most is not feeling connected to the baby at first. I had a terribly difficult delivery -- no drugs, but much intervention -- and my baby girl went right into the NICU. I remember taking her home and looking down at her, thinking, "Who are you?"

After about two weeks, I became ill and struggled with painful breastfeeding, but by the time she was a month old, that all had passed, and while I had the normal struggles of caring for a baby and toddler, and then another baby, I never had the sense that the world was passing me by.

I find it strange that you've written something I can't identify with. Obviously, it's just me, as everyone else has felt and understood what you wrote. It makes me wonder if I was lucky, or perhaps there's something wrong with me! ;)

Aine said...

Kaycie~ I think it's wonderful that you can't relate. I think your experience is how it "should" be!

Many mothers from other cultures who have been "studied" by social researchers are totally befuddled by experiences like mine. Motherhood should be a natural, understood, supported, and celebrated part of life. Our society's tendency to value ambition, independence, and separation from extended family is "weird".

(Sorry about the NICU experience though-- that's rough. And it's very normal to not feel connected at first, even without the NICU separation.)

jason evans said...

It's also painful to see this happening and know that there is no path for a husband to prevent it. You're right about a wider net--more support, more sharing of the burdens culturally. It's too much for one handle alone, and it's also too much for two. A relationship cannot restore your greater identity and connection to the world. Husbands can dive in to help, but without more support, you just end up with two people drowned instead of one.

The best part of this post is that you're doing exactly what isn't done enough. You're speaking frankly about the dark side of motherhood, and in doing so, letting in more light.

Aine said...

Jason~ Thank you! Yes, the support needed goes beyond just a marriage. That's why, I believe, American parents seem to have greater struggles than others. Our society values independence so greatly that we are proud of young adults who leave home and create their "own" family (as if they are no longer part of their previous family!) But we forget how necessary that interdependence and support is (many of us actually shun such support... :P).

And more than that, as a result of young families being isolated and hidden within their houses, we grow up with little observation/knowledge of the reality.

Thanks for struggling through it with me! Maybe next lifetime (ha!) we can do it differently so there is more of the pure joy and less of the frustrations.
:)

Kaycie said...

You know, I got to thinking about this and came back to read your response to my comment. Perhaps you're right and I was quite lucky. What I didn't mention, and what is different about the two of us, is that my daughter is now 17, my sons are 15 and 10. I wonder if those types of feelings are like pain and flee from the memory with time. Or it could be the fact that I'm Southern and married a boy from my hometown. You could barely get to her crib for all the people in her life!

By the way, the NICU wasn't so terrible. She was just there 24 hours with an arhythmia. Healthy, happy, and 7 lbs, 9 ozs. Because I immediately connected with the boys (probably because of her) I always blamed the disconnect on the NICU. It could be that it just took some time for me to register the fact that she was actually mine!

ChrisEldin said...

Wow, I don't even know where to start. You are such a sensitive person to notice her. And I can feel the heartache in your words. To lose identity, and then nobody even notices it's gone. Yes, it is a black time, on that level. And we all feel we have to lighten that by saying 'but of course we love our babies, blah blah blah.' I don't think that is even a part of this. Yes, the love is there.
But the identity of the former self is really lost. That needs to be acknowledged, and I'm glad you did this so eloquently in your post.
I'm just realizing there are no paragraph breaks in my response...

Aine said...

Kaycie~ Probably a combination of everything you mentioned!

Glad the NICU wasn't a more intense experience. I have a friend whose 2nd baby went to the NICU and she felt awful about the disconnect too. But it resolved once the baby was home and all was well.

Chris~ Yes!-- that is exactly how the reality is masked in our society. I've met many moms (I've done guest speaking at nursing mom's groups and I serve on the board of a non-profit agency that provides wellness services to new moms) who think that something was wrong with them because they had such difficulty adjusting to motherhood. And, as a result they talk as if all was rosy. Moms are afraid to admit out loud that they struggled or even hated something about the experience, so they tell everyone around them that they are fine.

But, let me tell you-- when the flood gates are opened, and someone like me makes it "safe" to tell the truth... hold on! I've heard enough to venture that my feelings were rosy in comparison! We need to stop lying to ourselves and our daughters. Motherhood is wonderful, but it isn't easy or as happy as everyone wishes it were.

I'll stop rambling now... But thanks for stopping by!! And, paragraph breaks are overrated...
;)

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Aine, I awarded you a "Blogging Star" on Old Mossy Moon. Come pick up your award. K.

Vesper said...

What a wonderful and thoughtful essay, Aine.

When I feel the most frustrated that I don’t have time to write, when I’m so tired that I will not sit down because if I did I wouldn’t be able to get up again, when I realise that most of the time I do not have one single tiny minute for myself, that’s when I might be upset or even outraged that I am and I am expected to be the primary caregiver.

But I don’t think of this very often. What I see more is the joy my two daughters bring to me, my love for them filling my heart painfully sweet, and also how quickly time passes. Too soon they will grow their own wings and won’t call “Mama!” at night anymore. So I’m determined to enjoy every moment of this, ignoring the hardships, or rather embracing them. For I am so much richer for them…

Happy Thanksgiving, Aine, Jason and daughters!

Catvibe said...

Hello, I just found your blog via Old Mossy Moon, and your new award from K. :-) I loved this post. I just recently graduated into the empty nest part of life, and I handled that by going traveling, but I'm still recovering (it's been two years) and still very much trying to find that 'me' I put on the back burner on that October night back in 1984. I raised my kids alone for the most part, as I was divorced in 1990. I never, ever in my wildest dreams could have realized what a doormat motherhood is. How no one, not the kids, not the kid's friends, not my family, not my friends, no one on earth had even the slightest clue how difficult it was raising my boys. Frankly, I'm lucky I still have my sanity, but I'd have to say that I have that only just barely. :-) Praise and deep gratitude for mothers everywhere. Thanks for this insightful post, and I'm glad to find your blog.

Aine said...

Kaye~ Wow-- Thanks!! I'll be right over...

Vesper~ Yes-- I feel that way with my girls now. It was the first few years that were darker and difficult. I treasure all the mommy moments I am given now!

Catvibe~ Welcome! I can't imagine how single parents survive. My sister was widowed when her kids were 9 and 11-- I've seen the difficulties she dealt with (her youngest is in college now, so she's almost an empty-nester, too). I'm glad you are actively rebuilding your "self"! I hope you stop by again!
:)

Minister of the Masochistic Truth said...

My Father left my Mother when I was 18 month old. She had two miscarriages before I was born, and gave birth to what would have been my sister, but she did not survive the delivery. This resulted in a pretty messed up woman. As a result I was both physically and psychologically abused as a boy by my Mother. I hated her.

Then, as I grew older and had a bit more life presepective, not to mention keeping either an ocean or continent between us, there was a bit of a healing process, though I still carried lots of anger.

Then my wife and I had our daughter just over six years ago.

Parenting is hard, and we have a very well behaved little girl. My wife and I are educated and together, whereas my Mother was alone; I can't imagine how she ever did it by herself, being illiterate and living in a city where she had no family or supports. Through this, I have found forgiveness.

Parenting is hard - largely due to our nuclear family isolationalist culture. It strains a relationship as all focus and energy goes on the child. It takes much more sacrifice than one could ever imagine to do a good job of raising a child, and we do give up a large part of who we are as we flit between the roles of employee to parent and back again.

This being said, I can't believe that our daughter is 6. Though turning 40 myself in a couple of weeks, I cherish this time because I know the day will come when our daughter moves out and we will have to re-discover oursleves. This can be a scarry prospect, as again one must search for self-identity.

Like Shakespeare said: "all the world's a stage and all the men and all the women, players". Beneath the roles of parent, employee, spouse, friend, our true selves lurk, though the waters are oftentimes murky, obscuering our vision...

Aine said...

Minister of the Masochistic Truth~ Welcome! What a blessing that you have found forgiveness for your mother. I find truth in the idea that we have two chances in life to create a healthy parent-child relationship. Once as a child and once as a parent. If as a child we suffer unhealthy dynamics, we can find healing by creating a healthy dynamic with our own children. I salute you for doing the hard work required to achieve that!

And thanks for stopping by!
:)

Minister of the Masochistic Truth said...

I think forgiveness is forged through understanding. If we do not try to understand others and view them with compassion, then that anger we direct outwards is also directed inwards. In the end, the Serenity Prayer makes for a great mantra:

"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace"

Though a quasi-Buddhist and not a Christian myself,thes words have always resonated with me (I heard them for the first time at the beginning of a Sinead O'Connor concert video). We can not change the past any more than we can travel to the future. Hence, be in the present and emulate the concept of "carpe diem".

Anyway, I enjoyed your blog and will visit again.

Best wishes.

Catvibe said...

I am, and in tandem with Jason's post on relationship pain, I have to say that part of my recent need for solitude I think is in part a healing thing and a helping thing. It is good to take some time in deep stillness to shed off the expectations and 'roles' we have created and with our age and hopefully acquired wisdom, we can create a 'me' that will take us gracefully into our middle age. However, isolation as a constant isn't so great either, and it would be easy to just fall into that habit to avoid the pain of the world. I've been thinking about that a lot over the last few days, because I have spent the greater part of 6 months nesting in this new location I've moved to, and I haven't really allowed myself to get involved in the community yet. I'm happy to say that my thoughts have involved a knowing that it is time to reach out and start making meaningful connections. Wish you two were in Asheville!

I'll be back for sure, and I'm going to link your blogs to my blog.

Minister of the Masochistic Truth said...

Community is the key, I believe. We need to feel attachments in our lives. I think the fundamental plague in our society at present is this disconect - this exists within families as well as amongst neighbours.

It's hard settling in to a new place. I've lived in 5 different Canadian cities and three different European cities. The first bit was pretty lonely - Canada moreso than Europe as the latter tended to be a wee bit more pro-social. That's changing however. I was teaching in Czechoslovakia the year the country split in two in 1992-93. I returned to the Slovak town for the first time this past July and was amazed at how the interaction between strangers had declined.

Anyway, I digress.

Here's sending positive karma your way!

Aine said...

Minister~ Thanks for the positive karma!

Catvibe~ :) It is so wonderful that the internet gives us the ability to communicate with others. Though it can't replace "real" interactions and relationships, it can serve to reduce feelings of isolation. Thanks for the links. Jason and I are happy to link to you too!
:)

The Quoibler said...

Aine:

I know what you mean -- a baby is like a big party. Everyone has so much fun, then they leave... but the hostess (aka, mommy) has to clean up everything until five in the morning and still make breakfast at six.

It's funny. There is no end to motherhood, but there is absolutely a distinct, abrupt beginning of cataclysmic proportions. It's like freedom is ripped from you, and I don't know how anyone can be fully prepared for it.

I'm fortunate in that I was able to create a position -- freelance writer -- out the nothingness that I felt my life was becoming. I loved (and still love) my son, but when I sat at home, I still was unfulfilled.

I just think it's good that women can talk about these feelings. And I'm happy that many men are starting to become more in tune to their partners' emotions.

Great post!

Angelique

SzélsőFa said...

This story resonates somehow within me...
I remember being a *first mom* with a fragile baby right back from the hospital..and with the overwhelming and frustrating feeling of 'what am I supposed to do with this little thing'?
Years of being a mother, brought me the necessary confidence...but there should be more education toward young girls so that they would be confident about their own ability to raise a child...