In class today, one of my professors related a story: he was attending a psychological conference with a counselor from another country. While there, she attended a forum on motherhood and was struck by its negative tone.
“Tell me,” she asked him over dinner, “why do American women hate motherhood so much?”
Please understand before you read the following rant why exactly this question hit me so hard. I am living a double life, attending graduate school three days a week and returning home to my children for four. I am trying to make all of it work: job, studies, motherhood, selfhood. I am drowning in every area and yet I know—with every way I have of knowing!— that I am on the right path. I know that the worst possible thing I could do to my children would be to abandon myself. And yet I have been accused of abandoning them. It is an impossible, constant tightrope walk.
I wrote the following words in a blur of ink during the fifteen minutes I had between that class and the next. They are not polished or even sensible. But getting them out onto the paper felt like a bloodletting. I share them here because they are real, and my quest here is to find the beauty in these real, thorny, difficult things.
Why do American women resent being mothers so much?
I can tell you nothing about Kenya. I can tell you nothing about American mothers in general. I can tell you why I, as an American mother, resent the fuck out of being one.
Consider the actual birth: the most intense, physically and emotionally wracking experience many of us have ever been through. It is, without a doubt, a sacred rite.
But it is at this moment, when your body is torn up and exhausted and you are sore inside and out, that you are handed this miraculous new being and unceremoniously dropped off the side of the earth. Now that you have had the baby, your health does not matter. You are simultaneously expected to heal, lose the baby weight, go without sleep, glow, smile, knit, cook, become a developmental expert, nurse, give up anything and everything you once thought of as your self and your time, oh, and resume salaried work. Your personality is a luxury now that must be subsumed under the role of Good Mother (as defined by everyone else. ) If this daunts or overwhelms you, my goodness, that’s probably just post-natal depression; suck it up, don’t you know how lucky you are to have this healthy little miracle in your life?
I know that there are cultures out there in which the having of a child is celebrated as the passage into womanhood, a graduation rite with all of the attendant social privileges and honors. I know there are places where new mothers are rallied around and supported, and the all-consuming job of child-rearing is shared among the many rather than heaped upon the one. I think that’s amazing. Because here, in my experience, it’s the moment you become obsolete as a human being. It used to perplex me that in family movies the mother is usually killed off within the first ten minutes of the plot. Then I realized it’s just a reflection of prevailing opinion: once you have a kid, your story is over.
I resent the way mothers are depicted in society, as brainless sweatpants-wearing breeders or as tyrannical, sexless drill sergeants. I resent that I cannot talk about my children without people’s eyes glazing over before they’ve even listened.
I resent that instead of being accorded respect and honor for the incessant work I am putting in I lose jobs, lovers, opportunities, respect over it. I resent that people assume my children’s actions are a reflection of me and that it is okay to yell at me for something they say or do. I resent that people see the fact that I have children as a diminishment of my intellectual or physical or cultural relevance. I resent that there is no place in this society for a mother with young children who wants to actively participate in society. There is no onsite childcare at political rallies. Nursing babies are not welcomed in lecture halls. Even University extension courses neither allow children (even sleeping ones) to sit in the room with their mother nor provide childcare on site. Sure, you can sling your child onto your hip and go anyway, but all of the resentful looks and dismissals and tears (theirs, mine, ours) wear you down after a while. I did not intend to stop being an adult because I had a child. Why am I expected to?
I resent that children are expected to be invisible, shuttled from school to violin lessons to soccer practice with nary a peep out of them to mar this perfect adult world we’ve created. I resent that it’s my lifeblood that greases that particular wheel. I resent that my children are not allowed to be CHILDREN, whooping and shouting and chasing and hunting and throwing mud, even though developmentally we all know that’s what children do. I resent that when they act like children, I am glared at or told to leave or ‘jokingly’ asked if they were raised in a barn. I resent that when I try to have a conversation about this people remark that if I didn’t want to raise children ‘right’ I shouldn’t have had them in the first place.
I resent that my role as Mother becomes the default setting for others’ perceptions of me. I resent that rather than wearing my motherhood as a badge of honor, I frequently hide it away because I have seen so many times the light of engagement go out of a new acquaintance’s eyes when they realize that I am Just A Mother, or watched my interviewer for a much-needed job mentally cross me out when he realized I had children.
I resent that I cannot spend time with my children and be a solvent adult simultaneously. I resent that people specify children as baggage when they refer to what is and is not desirable in a woman. I resent that I am paying three times as much for everything at a time when I am able to work less than ever. (Actually, at a time when I am working an unpaid 24-hour-per-day job that I have to fit all of my other ‘work’ around.) I resent that children are almost universally regarded as a handicap, not an asset, when I apply for work, for school, for a home. Yes, I resent it. I resent being A Mother.
Which is made all the more unbearable by the fact that having children is the most precious, incredible, soul-evolving experience of my life. My children are people who magnify and embolden and amaze and educate me. They are not baggage, or a problem, or a distraction from my ‘work’. They bring me alive every day. I don’t want to resent the role that having them thrust me into. It has nothing to do with them, this sickness in the way mothers are treated.
Except that it affects them every day, and millions of other children like them, because the woman who is raising them feels bullied and exhausted and reviled and lost. And resentful.
It is not the children’s fault. But ultimately, they are the ones who pay the price.
Actually, we all pay the price. Because this is a culture that is missing nearly half of its adult voices. All of that resentment—it is power, intelligence, energy; an entirely wasted resource.