On the second night after my son was born, I was exhausted. He was a hungry and wakeful baby and I was recovering from my first ever major surgery and the sudden, psychic shift of motherhood. One of the nurses begged me to let her take him to the nursery for a few hours so I could sleep.
Even then – just hours in, and only starting to grasp the reality of motherhood – I knew that the right answer was ‘no’. I couldn’t admit my terror, my sheer hopelessness in the face of my child’s basic needs. A good mother doesn’t rest. She takes it on the chin. Eventually, though, the exhaustion won out and I caved. I remember the distinct relief I felt. It was overwhelming and immediate and frightening.
Whenever I tell this story to people, I make light of this. I dilute my shame and guilt with a joke about how I realised that at some point, my baby would have to come back. Sometimes, this part of the story, the one wherein I describe the feeling of wanting to escape motherhood, makes people uncomfortable. Mostly, though, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are comfortable with the truth of early motherhood, and they barely flinch at this story.
I still flinch, though. And now, telling you, Reader, I am flinching in the face of what you will think of me. I know am the best mother for my children, including my son who is now a gregarious 7-year-old (who Knows! Everything!). I love them fiercely and creatively and I am working hard to give them the best possible start to their glorious, miraculous lives. That is not in question. But when I tell you about how, in one exhausted, hormone-drenched moment, years and lifetimes ago, I did not want to become a mother, I feel the familiar guilt and trepidation. A good mother doesn’t wish her kids away does she? What will you think of me now based on who I was then, still new to the visceral demands of motherhood?
In spite of this, I will continue to tell this story. To fellow mothers, to my family, to friends, to you, Reader. I will tell it because it is part of the rich and varied tapestry of motherhood. Motherhood has taught me this: a ‘good’ mother is not a collection of abstract, syrupy, sentimental values. What makes a mother good depends on who and where and when she is mothering. What makes a mother good is the extent to which she can rely on a village of support. What makes a mother good includes spaces to be honest – with herself and others – about the moments in which she just wants to go back to before, to the levity and innocence she didn’t know she was giving up until she did. I want every mother to feel equipped and strong and capable so I share that story so they know to recognise it in themselves and understand that it is a normal part of becoming a mother. And that, like everything else in motherhood, it will change soon enough.
One of my favorite bits of writing is a piece by Courtney E. Martin on the “breaking and blessing of motherhood. She foregrounds these words from Miranda July:
If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? These exotic revelations bubbled up involuntarily and I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother. It hurt. I tried to be conscious while it happened, like watching my own surgery. I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with. But I knew this was unlikely; when the process was complete I wouldn’t have anything left to complain with, it wouldn’t hurt anymore, I wouldn’t remember.Miranda July
How many new mothers would benefit from clarity and honesty about motherhood? That motherhood is all these things – the deep, earth-shattering love and devotion, the bone-deep existential exhaustion, the profound bittersweet feeling of watching your children grow and change before your eyes. Like any experience that is worth its weight in joy and life experience, motherhood contains all of it. Including, sometimes, despondency and grief and a deep-seated desire to run and never look back.
As I write this, I know those of you based in the Unites States are reeling from your land’s highest court’s decision to restrict and rescind your rights and access to safe, sanctioned termination of pregnancy procedures. I want you to know that around the world, we are reeling right along with and for you. As unprepared as I have been for motherhood, it was an institution into which I consciously entered. My partner and I underwent grueling fertility treatments to conceive my son. We navigated the complex corridors of our country’s adoption practices and policies so we could bring our daughter home. I chose this, and I continue to choose it, especially in the hard moments. For some mothers, the hard moments are made harder by the effects of class inequality and wealth gaps. A few weeks ago, at a work event, a researcher described the day-to-day experiences of one of her research subjects. Living in a state of near-constant deprivation, she has had to navigate pregnancy, birth and caregiving, all the while without a steady income or social protections beyond the measly child support grant our government offers.
I cannot imagine the pain of mothering a hungry child whilst you are also hungry. In a society in which maternal hunger is possible and common, it is a profoundly cruel thing to take away a procedure that would allow mothers to control when they accept the “breaking and blessing” of motherhood. To force them to endure hunger in themselves and their children. That is what overturning Roe v. Wade is doing to vulnerable mothers in the US. What little control women have had to define the circumstances under which they carry and birth children may now be completely snuffed out.
As an adoptive mother, I am also appalled by the way in which people use adoption as a fail-safe option in the absence of rights to termination of pregnancy. How much crueler is that? Consider what you are asking women: to carry and birth children and then surrender them, and live with the grief for the rest of their lives? Adoption is necessitated by loss and grief. It is deeply insulting to adoptees and birth parents who have relinquished their parental rights to mischaracterise it as a band-aid with which to paper over yawning societal chasms.
In the hours before a friend forwarded me a link to a story reporting on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I was rereading a piece by Linda Villarosa on the crisis facing black maternal healthcare in the US. It is a crisis that seems to worsen each year, with mothers of colour (regardless of their socioeconomic status) facing staggering odds of poor global health outcomes for themselves and their babies. Now those mothers will not even have the space to make the (difficult, no matter what) choice to forgo the trauma of carrying and birthing a child under the weight of structural racism.
It’s a blinkered madness that only makes sense as long as your definition of life does not deem the lives and souls of mothers as worthy of vociferous protection. It only makes sense if by ‘life’, you mean a theoretical existence that is not yet corrupted and sullied by the ugliness that society visits upon its most vulnerable members. No such life exists, because even as babies grow in their mothers’ bodies, they are affected by the same psychosocial factors as their mothers.
Seven years ago, in the four hours after the nurse convinced me to let her take my son while I slept, I woke in a cold sweat, with a visceral need to see and hold him. I realised then that I would never be able to fully rest unless I had immediate knowledge of my children’s whereabouts and safety. I am never whole without them, even as I prepare them to lead whole lives that don’t depend entirely on me. That’s the deal, though. That’s the choice we make, as parents.
Is it too much to ask that, in a society that does not fully grasp this breaking and blessing, this sweet torture of raising lives, we truly let people choose this, rather than allowing the weight of history and circumstance push them into it?
A good mother, I think, can only be made when her life, her health and the enormous responsibility placed on her person is acknowledged. A good mother, with her life respected, her journey supported, and the freedom to choose motherhood every day.