We can’t even see to the bottom of how much disregard and active opposition there is in our culture for what women need to live a healthy and fulfilled life—mothers in particular. This list includes but goes beyond childcare. It includes but goes beyond the expectations that every woman embody an ideal of femininity. I often thought, while writing this book, that I would like to have a child, but only if I could have it in a state of nature; that if I have to be a mother in this culture, it’s not worth it. If I could have a child out somewhere beyond culture, away from all the books and Instagram and schools and other parents and the internet and the products on the shelves, I would.
Or I might. But the urge would have to be very strong in me to want to mother in a world where mothers are so policed (even by other women), and where one hundred years of psychology has taught us that if there is any problem in your life, it is the fault of your mother, who loved you wrong. I’m amazed that people have the guts to step into it.
Sheila Heti, 5/7/2018, interviewed in The Los Angeles Review of Books.
... for many women in the U.S., the ACOG committee opinion notes, the postpartum period is "devoid of formal or informal maternal support." This reflects a troubling tendency in the medical system — and throughout American society — to focus on the health and safety of the fetus or baby more than that of the mother. "The baby is the candy; the mom is the wrapper," said Alison Stuebe, who teaches in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and heads the task force that drafted the guidelines. "And once the candy is out of the wrapper, the wrapper is cast aside."
Nina Martin, "Redesigning Maternal Care: OB-GYNs Are Urged to See New Mothers Sooner And More Often." NPR, 4/23/2018.
I feel anything but anchored. I feel beat up by the cultural storm. When I talk to Tom about the discomfort I feel with the question that got me traveling this path in the first place—“What is best for my kid?”—he raises his voice for the first time in the hour we’ve been sitting at his sunlit kitchen table: “What is the best? How much crap have you already swallowed by even asking this question?”
Courtney E. Martin, "Stop Asking and Answering Other Peoples' Questions." On Being, 4/18/2018.
The truth is that mothers do fail. Such failure should be viewed not as catastrophic but as normal, a crucial part of the task.
Jacqueline Rose, "Mothers Superior," from Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. Harpers, May 2018.
I enjoy life so much more than I did before. You can land here without a baby. But why not have a baby along the way? Babies are fucking delightful.
Heather Havrilesky, "Ask Polly: Should I Have a Baby?" The Cut, 1/17/2018.
For a long time, I thought I didn't want to have a baby, and then I chose to have one.
(Before I write another word, let me say this: When it comes to stories like this, any one story is only ever one story. Yours is yours; mine is mine.)
In the years before I had children, I read a lot, trying to understand what having a child would be like.* I read professional writers, often raging—at horror-show birth experiences; describing the dumb/numb/cowlike/bewildering/joyful/sorrowful/horrible/anxious/peaceful state of early motherhood; the relentlessness of assuming responsibility for someone else, for years and years; changing; not changing; getting fat; getting divorced; losing careers/books/opportunities/selves. I read brilliant women joyfully lighting fire to the idea that having a kid was the baseline default of a woman's life. I read poetry, novels, memoirs, news articles. I lurked in chat rooms, reading mini novellas under anonymous handles that described birth and its complications in raw detail, that dissected and attacked an astonishing array of decisions, from feeding a child Cheerios to choosing which sunscreen to buy. I read blogs written by mothers, some shiny and slick, others of the sort that attract words like gritty and raw, some intentionally hilarious, some religious (particularly compelling to me for their lack of questioning). I read words of great beauty (writers can't help themselves**) and deep pain.
I think I hoped, somehow, that there would be an answer just for me: Stephanie, this is what you should do. Have a baby! Don't have a baby! I never found one. What changed was that in my mid-thirties, I realized the reasons I had for not having a baby—fear of change, losing control, uncertainty, heartbreak, the work involved—were conditions of life, baby or not. Things would change, and I would change, kid or no. Life was uncertain. My heart would break anyway, and then get patched up and limp along until it broke again. Everything required work—mostly the dumb, patient, unseen kind that nobody notices or cares much about.
But maybe what was even more important is that I could look around and see my friends as mothers, making different choices about how to be mothers. Some had unmedicated childbirths; some had scheduled C-sections; some adopted. Some breastfed; some did not. Some co-slept; some had cribs. Some had nannies; some had daycare. Some had corporate jobs, some did creative work, some completed dissertations and novels, some chose to focus all their brilliance and creativity on parenting.*** And wonderfully, miraculously, their children were fine. Delightful, even. Marvelous and funny and weird and frustrating and charming and growing and changing every instant. It did not look easy, but it looked possible. And I saw joy. The joy sold me.
This idea of the possibilities was something I held close—that I could choose what to do, and that I could, radically, choose what worked for me, and that it would likely be okay in the end. These were (and have not) always been choices categorized as the "best." I knew I didn't want to breastfeed (lack of sleep really messes with my mental state, and I figured having a baby would be hard enough without sole responsibility for feeding said baby; in this I was correct) so I switched from a "baby-friendly" hospital and provider that promoted breastfeeding to an OB group that respected my decision and did not see me as a mindless being in need of education (I had read everything under the sun and was well aware I wasn't making the recommended choice). It worked for us.**** Sean and I split the baby-feeding responsibilities, we could each get decent chunks of uninterrupted sleep, and I spent most of those early days feeling pretty blissed out and relaxed. I was utterly taken aback by how much I enjoyed it, actually, being a mother. And Hugh thrived. Of course, it's entirely possible that if I had tried breastfeeding it might have been wonderful, too, or utterly miserable, or merely fine. I'll never know.*****
So why I am writing this? Because when I made that choice, I never read anyone who had a story like mine. There were many stories of women who tried breastfeeding and couldn't make it work, but none who thought about it, considered themselves, then took the Bartleby approach and simply said, "I would prefer not to." I share it as my contribution to the stories showing the multiplicity of motherhoods available, as testimony to the fact that when it comes to motherhood, you can choose what works for you.
There's so much extraordinary writing about motherhood, about choosing to be a mother, about how hard it is, about what you gain and lose.****** And yet, there should be more. Because there is no one way to be a mother—it is vast and variable experience. It's a role that should always begin by choice*******, because it is a role of choices, a cascade of choices, huge and petty, one after the other, neverending. Some fall behind you, forgotten and increasingly minor (though major in the moment), and some circle back unexpectedly to perplex and confound, and there is only guessing at which kind is which as you make them, trying to do a good enough job until the human in your care can start choosing for themselves. I used to imagine motherhood like the huge and terrifying space stone monolith at the start of "2001: A Space Odyssey" — opaque, massive, mysterious, likely to crush me. In reality, motherhood feels more like someone has handed me a lump of clay. Make of it what you will.
* So far, I have read nothing that captures my own experience of motherhood, though I have read many wonderful and terrible things about motherhood. It's like holding up one of those little plastic toys that promise a fly's-eye view and looking through: recognizable pieces and parts of the world I know are there, congruent fragments that sort of map to my experience, but not quite the whole thing. Not quite. I think this is why so many mothers write about it, maybe.
** Be wary of anything you read by a writer. No matter how raw, no matter how beautiful, they are in the business of making art, of composing and polishing and editing and choosing.
*** We are a privileged lot, having the power to exercise these options.
**** Another privilege. Formula is not cheap.
***** For me, getting comfortable with not knowing has been essential to this whole parenthood gig.
****** See: Sheila Heti, Meaghan O'Connell, Heather Abel, Kimberley Harrington, Jacqueline Rose, Rivka Galchen, among many others.
******* I told a friend once that I think prenatal care in the U.S. is passively aligned with the philosophies of the anti-abortion movement: women are merely tools for the production of healthy babies. I sometimes imagine what truly women-centered care would be like:
- Prenatal care that takes "believe women" as a core value and does not regard women as inert, uninformed vessels to be "educated" or led to a specific decision.
- Taking all of women's fears and concerns—pain, tearing, weight gain, breastfeeding—seriously, and working to improve and expand the ways available to ameliorate them.
- Giving women the power to choose their prenatal care and birth experiences, from home births to scheduled c-sections.
- Expanding parental leave—but giving a woman the freedom to go back to work whenever she feels ready.
- Better support for women who choose to breastfeed, for however long they choose to breastfeed, and better formula for women who choose not to.
- High quality, affordable, and flexible childcare, provided by workers treated as professionals and paid a fair wage.
- A more diverse economy that offers flexible, well-paid jobs, opportunities for extended leave, and opportunities to re-enter the workforce after an absence.
- Respect for those who take on the role of full-time caregivers.
- The acknowledgment that there are many, many different ways to be a wonderful mother.