Have you read Margret Atwood’s seminal 1969 novel, The Edible Woman?
In it, Marian, a young woman engaged to be married, finds that she can’t quite stomach the idea of traditional marriage and all that it will ask her to give up. She ends up losing her appetite, beginning to identify more and more as a thing to be sectioned, devoured and digested.
As a mother, I identify with Marian. More than any other social institution into which I have entered, motherhood seems to render me – to the world outside of myself – as a collection of parts. Think about it. How many images and graphics have you seen of a pregnant female torso without its head? Or a disembodied breast?
First, there is my womb, and the baby living within it. In some corners of thought, even when that baby is but a few nascent cells, this should mean immediate responsibility and a removal of complete autonomy over one’s own body. Secondly, my breasts, and whether or not I could rely on them to feed my voracious child. Then the matter of my brain. With what will I occupy my days with once my children are here? With their care? Or with balancing their care with work outside of my home?
When I was a little girl, I was enamored with the Carl Sagan’s assertion that
Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.
I somehow felt more invincible, walking around with an idea that I was made up of atoms and molecules that predated my earliest ancestors and will continue long after I am no longer here. It felt like being whole, like having a story to which I could cling as puberty hit, and the world began to tear me apart in the way the world does to young girls.
Becoming a mother and entering the maelstrom of societal noise about motherhood has been the opposite. I’ve never felt quite as dense and diluted.
The breastfeeding lobbyists want me to know that my breasts are the best thing for my baby. While I am sure they mean my breasts attached to my person, that message doesn’t always come through in their delivery. (Witness last year’s theme for World Breastfeeding Week: Protect Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding. Not breastfeeders; not the breastfed. Just the feeding.)
The ‘natural’ birth crowd are in a seemingly constant battle with the medical birth crowd over my oxytocin and how best to get it coursing through my system.
My post-birth body is pored over and poked and prodded to see if it is ‘bouncing back’ (looking at you, news media and your shady coverage of Kylie Jenner).
My mind – oh my mind. When I am not losing it to the flurry of conflicting advice and information, I might be losing it to untreated postnatal mental illness. God forbid we cop to feeling something more than the baby blues, or admitting that we are struggling with the shift from child to woman to mother of child.
The rich tapestry conjured up by the term ‘star stuff’ is lost in the pieces, and along with it, the nuance and complexity that make this life worth living after all. As a mother – or a child becoming a woman with children – my saving grace has been finding spaces in which to explore the nuance without guilt or caveat. The rooms I am most comfortable in are the ones in which I can gather all of myself together and share it with other whole mothers. Other spaces – the ones that require me to show up as just my breastfeeding journey, or my birth story, or my unalloyed delight at every moment of my children’s existence – are deeply uncomfortable at best, downright hostile at most. But the hardest rooms are the ones in which I am alone with the contradictions of motherhood.
I’ve been a mother for 7 years now. I’ve celebrated 8 Mother’s Days. Instead of seeing mothers as whole and motherhood as a full experience, we still separate them according to form and function. It is hard to take the noise around Mother’s Day seriously in a society that still considers us through the prism of our body parts.
What would it be like, I wonder, to truly celebrate whole mothers? In all their glory and mess and magic. In my mind, it would be acknowledging the star stuff of which we are all made. That existed long before us as individuals and will continue to exist long after us. That’s what connects us to one another – our complexities and continuities. Maybe then we will see mothers – actual mothers – not just their dissected bodies.
I know better than to ask for more than that. Paid parental leave, wrap-around support for breastfeeding, affordable child care etc. Like I said, I’ve been in the motherhood game long enough to know better.
For respite, I turn to another Sagan – Sasha, daughter of Carl, who wrote the beautiful, contemplative memoir For Small Creatures Such as We. In it, she contemplates what spirituality and ritual can mean in the lives of secular creatures such as herself and her family, and, yes, Reader, me. Amongst other wise ruminations, she finds that
My parents taught me that the provable, tangible, verifiable things were sacred, that sometimes the most astonishing ideas are clearly profound, but when they get labeled as “facts”, we lose sight of their beauty. It doesn’t have to be this way. Science is the source of so much insight worthy of ecstatic celebration.
When we use science as a hard and fast battering ram with which to impose, for instance, divisions within mothering and motherhood, we lose the profoundness borne of the diversity of lived experiences. And that’s hard on real, living mothers. I promise you it’s probably even worse for society in general.
The braver choice is the one to see us whole and as just like you – magical ordinary star matter. That is the best of what we can offer one another. I leave you with a final word from Sasha Sagan:
As with love, it’s our vulnerability that opens us up to something deeper. Our willingness to be wrong, to let go of our predictions and preconceptions, clears the way to more than we could have otherwise imagined.