(Very) Belated Mother Day Thoughts

It recently occurred to me: I have no photos of myself during my pregnancy or the first year of my daughter’s life. This strikes me as so sad, not because I missed out on the photo opportunity, but because it’s evidence of the self loathing I felt at the time.

Motherhood for me has always been a sort of a struggle. It’s not something that I would say comes easily. Most of the time, it isn’t that easy for me to enjoy. Motherhood, for me, came with a sense of loss. And a sense of obligation. With that came anxiety. Sometimes I feel like I am incapable of loving my daughter fully, because that would require a capacity for loss that I just don’t have. Love and loss being two sides of the same coin. Maybe that’s because I run towards pessimism. I think about these things too much.

When my daughter was born, it was awful. The experience of being in the hospital, plied with drugs, reeling from the complications of those drugs, being plied with more drugs to address those complications, all the while being treated like a problem and a liability by the medical professionals whose job, I thought, was to protect me. . . I’m not trying to rant about how the medical profession treats women (though I’ve got plenty to say about it), but rather how this experience was a telling frame for how motherhood would start for me. A lonely, wild sort of feeling. One marked by a painful awareness of how fragile everything is.

I say all this because I don’t think women talk about it enough. It’s just joy and blessings, and I-wouldn’t-change-it-for-anything-in-the-world generalizations and glosses. Maybe the occasional complaint about lack of sleep or free time. But it’s almost sacrilege to discuss pain and loss in regards to motherhood. You can’t even say that sometimes the world feels like an unsafe place and it feels almost stupid to bring another kid into that. You can’t speak of the heavy, heavy weight of all that responsibility.

Without the platitudes, can we just talk about it? Just to sit honestly with our fears for a little while?

After my daughter was born, I tried to speak about my experiences of fear, anxiety, terror. All these little griefs. And I was told just to be grateful, that “all’s well that ends well,” as if speaking of my pain would … what? Tempt fate? Anger god? Make people uncomfortable, most likely. But result of this silence was only to feel more isolated and shamed for feeling complicated feelings. To any other mothers out there dealing with their feelings: This life is not a box that you need to neatly fit yourself in. There’s much more space in this world than that.

Me in a Nutshell, part 1

I’m a stay-at-home mom. I used to be a lawyer, though not a particularly good one, and not for very long. I quit because I found it to be an intolerable combination of boring and stressful. I’ve experienced some side eye and, a few times, outright judgment for leaving my “career,” and I never know how to answer questions about when I’m going back to work. Truth is, I don’t want to go back. I’ve never felt like the workforce, that monolithic, sinister entity, did me any favors. Its frequent attempts to thicken my skin never really took. I’m still too sensitive. I don’t bounce back. All it ever did was wear me down, fuel my depression and anxiety. I don’t know how to explain my experience adaquately, so that you would understand. It felt like choking. Even when the work itself was meaningful, even perhaps important, I was always, essentially, separate from it. It was never, ever about me, and if I wasn’t there, someone else would do it. It was a powerless, impotent feeling. I think this is by design. If you’re broken down and tired, you’re less likely to fight back.

So, I bowed out as soon as I could, or rather, after I felt I had a good enough reason. I had a baby. Yet I still feel weird about cashing in on our gendered institutions to procure my freedom. Now, if I were a man, I could stay at home easily, without judgment or regret. In fact, I’d be a trendsetter, I’d be sticking it to the Capital-M Man. As it stands, I sort of work for him instead. I’m fulfilling the dismal promise of the 1950s, taking care of children and shiny appliances. Still, I try to be subversive when I can.

One of my main goals as a mother is to shield my daughter from the destructive influence of gender essentialism. Our society has a vested interest in accentuating any inherent differences between men and women to reinforce the gender binary. I think many people underestimate how deeply and tightly held these sorts of gendered beliefs are. Gendered gifts, gendered comments and observations, started for my daughter in her infancy. Well-intentioned (I suppose?) strangers continue to comment on her cute clothes, call her princess, tell her to smile. It’s inundating. From her earliest moments, she’s received these not-so-subtle hints from society about how she should be and what she should focus on. I try to balance the scales by giving her options and alternatives. And I try to create the space for her to forge her own path. This feels, to me, productive and powerful, even in its small scope.

But sometimes I wonder, will my daughter think less of me, when she grows up? Because of the decisions I’ve made? Because of how I spent my life?

Anne Sexton’s Grave

Last summer, I visited Anne Sexton’s grave. I touched the cold stone, traced my fingers along the etching. Bore witness to the offerings others had left behind: coins, ink pens, jewelry. I hadn’t expected to be in New England, hadn’t quite wanted to go to New England in the first place, but, since I was in New England, I went to Forest Hills Cemetery to see Anne Sexton.

The last time I was in New England, life was very different. Supposedly, it was a happier time: It was the first plane trip I took with my family after my daughter was born. She was about 6 months old. It was the first time I had ever been to Rhode Island or Cape Cod. I remember thinking that everything was so outlandishly beautiful–the Breakers, for example–but I couldn’t quite feel the excitement that I usually experienced traveling. Instead, I felt a mix of anxious, worn down, muted. The entire trip felt like a dream, something I only have a vague recollection of.

Of course, I couldn’t put it to words at the time. I was still breastfeeding and was thick in in the midst of postpartum delirium. I don’t think I even knew that I was struggling–with my body, with motherhood, with the changing circumstances of my life. It was only two years later, when I came back to New England, that I was confronted with the memory of how detached I had felt. The bewilderment. The strange sense of loss. I came back two years later, feeling suddenly like I saw my life more clearly. And I began to take some small solace–in this truth and the expression of it, in poetry and those of women who came before me, like Sexton, whose unflinching gaze towards suffering and loss continues to inspire me.

I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good. I will forget
how we bumped away from each other like marionettes
on strings. It wasn’t the same
as love, letting weekends contain
us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name,
wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying.
You call me mother and I remember my mother again,
somewhere in greater Boston, dying.

I remember we named you Joyce
so we could call you Joy.
You came like an awkward guest
that first time, all wrapped and moist
and strange at my heavy breast.
I needed you. I didn’t want a boy,
only a girl, a small milky mouse
of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house
of herself. We you Joy.
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.

From “The Double Image”