The Better Mother
One of the more memorable train rides I’ve taken was in India. It was an overnight trip, and the only berth I found, squeezing through corridors as packed as the Toronto subway at rush hour, was a wooden upper bunk in a strangely uncrowded cabin. The cabin’s occupants were few: a screaming madwoman and her apologetic but frightened parents. The woman kept trying to give me her baby, once actually throwing the infant up to me like a tightly swaddled football. I immediately gave it back. I was only twenty-two, and not interested in foreign adoptions.
Fifteen years later, I found myself wishing I had kept that child. My husband and I married late, and, like so many in our generation, thought we could remain young forever. This prolonged habitation of Neverland was no doubt encouraged by the childlessness of our peers. Financial insecurity (he’s an artist and I was then an academic and aspiring writer) contributed to our sense of not being quite ready. And above all, we didn’t want to be tied down by parental responsibilities, because there were so many places we still wanted to travel, so many adventures we still wanted to have.
So when we decided that having a child was something we wanted even more than a trek through Nepal, it was a shock to discover how hard it was to get pregnant. I was thirty-five and he, nearly forty; all those years of careful birth control now seemed laughably ironic. My Fallopian tubes —body parts I’d never had reason to acknowledge before, whose name alone was risible — were failing to transport my eager eggs to their destination, with the result that I would never be able to have children.
Or so I was told, after two surgeries and many courses of pharmaceuticals, notable more for their unpleasant side effects (among them, weight gain and depression) than their effectiveness. We investigated adoption only to be told by the agency that, as middle-aged Jewish artists, our chances were slim to nil. These days, birth mothers get to choose the adoptive families, and since most of them are young and Christian, they want their offspring to be raised by other young Christians, especially rich, professional ones. Moreover, in Toronto at that time, for every available child, there were 250 couples trying to adopt.
All sorts of helpful souls kept telling us to “just relax,” pregnancy would occur spontaneously. (People who would never say this to someone with any other chronic disease — diabetes, for example — somehow think that it’s okay to tell infertile couples that they are causing their own problems through negative thinking.) Around the same time, the meetings of the Royal Commission on the New Reproductive Technologies presented the bizarre spectacle of both fundamentalist Christians and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) agreeing that people like me needed to be protected from our own misguided lust for breeding. Granted, their reasoning differed: the religious types believed that infertile women ought to accept what was God’s will, while the NAC stated that we were being manipulated by sadistic doctors for the sake of genetic engineering. But none of this abstract theorizing on the part of people who already had children or who didn’t want them made our situation any easier.
Luckily, our last faint hope, in vitro fertilization, worked. In vitro means “in glass”, hence the popular but misleading name for the process: making “test-tube” babies. It’s not nearly as Frankensteinish as it sounds, for neither test tubes nor babies are involved. All that happens is that a few ripe eggs, removed from a woman’s ovaries by aspiration, are joined by a school of wriggly sperm in a Petri dish. Two days later, if fertilization has occurred, there will be at least one healthy four-celled embryo to be implanted in the lining of the woman’s womb. What ensues then is a perfectly ordinary nine-month pregnancy. Mom, Dad and fetus have to function without the benefit of scientific assistance from that moment on, like everyone else. And that is the wonderful part for someone like me, whose body, up until then, had failed.
Thank you, inscrutable deities of maternity. Thank you, white-coated physicians. Thank you, black-clad Italian nonnas on St. Clair West, feeling my belly and telling me it would be a boy (it was). Thank you, whomever! Most people are endlessly curious about pregnancy, but not me. I was not about to ask too many questions, and damned if I would complain about anything ever again. Morning sickness was great, since it meant I was producing enough hormones. Gaining weight was perfect, because the baby was obviously growing. If the fetal soccer player kept me up all night with his kicking, well bless his knobby knees. I had too much to be grateful for to scrutinize my situation, and pregnancy itself was a blessed vacation from my earlier anxiety.
But when a seven-pound squalling newborn was placed in my arms, that serenity vanished instantly and, alas, forever. Not getting pregnant on demand was the first hint that I was no longer in control of my life. That I had once been a child and still had a mother proved to be insufficient qualifications for my new vocation. I’d wanted this so much, gone through extraordinary lengths to achieve it, and now felt totally incompetent. Sobbing-in-the-shower-at-midnight-because-the-baby-threw-up-all-over-my-only-clean-nightgown incompetent. Unable-to-get-the-baby-to-nap incompetent. Unable-to-read-a-novel, write-a-poem, or even finish-a-damn-crossword-puzzle incompetent. All I was capable of reading were books about how to be a good mother; a better mother; the best mother.
Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women are two of the latest efforts to chronicle the damage caused by striving for unrealistic ideals of motherhood. More recently, Australian authors Ita Buttrose and Penny Adams have written a book called Motherguilt about the apparent epidemic of angst among modern women. Some of this angst is attributable to the phenomenon of delayed motherhood and the resulting conflict between one’s career and home life. Older women are used to being good at things, because they already have careers. Like I did. They have often moved away from their relatives for the sake of those careers. Like I did. And they are too independent to seek out help when they need it. Like I was.
As a specialist in English literature, I believed in the reassuring power of research. But no matter how many books I studied, I never felt competent. Socks usually had no mates. Dessert often came before dinner. I never finished a thought, let alone a hot cup of coffee. And this is the nature of motherhood, because (1) you can only learn on the job; and (2) mothers are not specialists, they’re generalists. To become a mother, I had to become a nurse, a babysitter, a teacher, a nutritionist and a therapist; I had to sing and play soccer and learn the names of superheroes; I had to make costumes and help with homework and organize birthday parties; I had to bandage wounds and confront school principals. I had to be many things to many people and become many people in myself. And if you’re an “elderly primipara” like I was, this is a huge psychic shock.
In other words, there is no training for motherhood. One is, at best, “in train”, an expression I learned upon looking up the word “train” in the Oxford English Dictionary, my chief recourse in times of trouble. It’s lucky the OED has always been my bible, for had I turned to The Good Book, I would have read: “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Such grand assurance and simplicity would have hit me like a divine reproach. Motherguilt, smotherguilt; there’s nothing modern about it. Jewish mothers have been famously guilt-ridden since biblical times.
Now we have new stuff to be guilty about, because we’re expected to be more than “just a mother.” In the years when my children were very small, I often felt guilty for staying home with them. At the parties I managed to attend, when people asked me what I did, all I had to say to make their eyes glaze over was that I stayed at home with my children. It was a guaranteed conversation killer. Not that I had any conversation anymore, since I rarely went out, except to the park or the paediatrician; I didn’t read many books, except those with pictures; I heard little music but Raffi and Sharon, Lois & Bram. I lacked ambition — a hanging offence in North America in the nineteen-nineties. I had betrayed Literature by refusing to serve her exclusively. I had betrayed Academia by preferring my children’s company. I had even betrayed Feminism by reverting to type.
It took a few more years for me to feel that this was perfectly okay, that I was lucky to have had the opportunity to stay home. After all, I had already worked for years and years, but I’d never been a mother of small children before and never would be again. Giving in to the process of mothering —teaching your children to use the toilet, eat with cutlery, do up laces and buttons and zippers — was just as important to me, and to society, as writing books and teaching classes.
Talking to other women of my generation, I find that my story is common. A lot of us didn’t want children when we were young and then had trouble conceiving. (Contemporary estimates are that one in five couples in North America is infertile). A lot of us felt inept at motherhood and guilty about giving up our careers. Loads of us have written about these things. So why do we keep coming out with books and articles saying that nobody else ever tells the truth about pregnancy and childbirth? Because nobody ever tells the truth about your pregnancy and childbirth experience. It’s like falling in love; although there are lots of books about it, nobody sees their own experience represented accurately, so they have to write about it all over again.
Perhaps the best of the current crop is Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood by Irish writer Anne Enright. Too bad about the title, since the book’s not really about the making of babies (which is what I or, rather, what the Fertility Clinic did). Though I ought to envy Enright for being one of those lucky women who gets pregnant without even trying, I found her book an absolute delight, full of apt, funny, bewildered and paradoxical observations that I recognize from my own childbearing season. How, for example:
If Kafka had been a woman, then Gregor Samsa would not have turned into an insect, he would not have had to. Gregor would be Gretl and she would wake up one morning pregnant. She would try to roll over and discover she was stuck on her back. She would wave her little hands uselessly in the air.
As this example suggests, Enright is brilliant at evoking the strangeness of inhabiting a pregnant body and the cognitive dissonance of realizing you are no longer alone in it. She perceptively evokes the hijacking of a mature woman’s life. I laughed aloud, reliving the helplessness of dealing with a baby’s colic and the omnipresence of sticky, smelly bodily fluids; the doting idiocy of new mothers extolling their infant’s cursory accomplishments. I also remember, and just as ruefully, the rage at the self-sufficiency of men in their unmarked and private bodies; their nicely continuous careers; their obliviousness to how much of a mess children create and how much work it takes to keep things going. “How does it always, always, fucking end up like this,” Enright says, “with the woman climbing a domestic Everest while the man walks out the door?”
Where Enright differs from other commentators on the inequality of domesticity—“You are furious,” she writes, because “you have to fight for every half-hour that a man will just assume”— is in her broad empathy. She goes on: “The actual man may be on your side in all this, or he may not —either way he will absorb a considerable amount of the blame.”
Enright’s refusal to indulge in facile gender politics points to the greatest difficulty of writing about motherhood: finding a way to reject simplification even when one could go for the easy tear, the homely comfort of cliché. You need to be determined to see what’s really there, even when the experience of motherhood works against you, or against ordinary expectations. “Who are you fighting? First of all yourself, and after that the wide world, that considers your time to be of no importance.” For most mothers, this sense of always being on call to wipe a child’s nose or bum, to feed the child and console it, is overwhelming. And it goes along with the rage I spoke of, when one realizes that women are not only expected to do this but are given so little credit for it — even by themselves.
The value of Making Babies is not just its insistence that we recognize the hard labour of domesticity and the pain of childbirth, but its rejection of the body–mind split that puts reason above more intimate and primal epistemologies. I love Enright’s reflection on the apparent randomness of the let-down of a nursing mother’s milk:
There is a part of me, I have realized, that wants to nurse the stranger on the bus. Or perhaps it wants to nurse the bus itself, or the tree I see through the window of the bus, or the child I once was, paying my fare on the way home from school. This occasional incontinence is terrifying.
It makes me want to shout—I’m not sure what. Either, Take it! or Stop! If the world would stop needing, then my body would come back to me. My body would come home.
But it doesn’t, or perhaps it is the notion of “home” itself that has changed. Your body is never just yours again, because someone else has lived there. You have become a home, so how can you go there? One example of this altered sense of self lies in the womb. I grant that most of us are unfamiliar with our organs until something goes wrong with them, but the uterus is the Clark Kent of mushy, red body parts, quietly looking for a phone booth and then, whoosh — superpowers. I still remember those giant contractions crashing through my belly. How the hell could something as strong as my uterus be hiding so meekly inside me all those years?
As with the uterus, so with the breasts, for those of us who have breast-fed. A body part, which previously seemed to exist only to get in the way while exercising and to titillate the guys (pardon the pun), proves to be awesomely capable. You don’t need to cook anymore to feed the multitudes: you can perform miracles of transubstantiation in the privacy of your own rocking chair! Of course, it doesn’t always work: there’s not enough milk and your baby cries; there’s too much milk and your baby cries; there’s just enough milk and your baby cries anyway. But the point is that you are making milk.
This is, above all, what I appreciated finding in Enright’s book: a recognition of the strangeness of motherhood. You get two new bodies, yours and the baby’s, linked together forever. And with it, you get something you had hoped for but never could quite imagine before: a new kind of love. Imagine that, being middle-aged and discovering a new kind of love!A love that involves your whole body without sex; a love that is infinitely generous and infinitely reciprocated.A love as huge and mysterious as the terror that overtakes you the first day you hold your baby and realize you will be responsible for it, forever. Though Enright — as usual — says it better:
A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.
© copyright Susan Glickman 2005