Monday, April 25, 2011

On Motherhood

The journey of a feminist takes many turns and goes through many a transition. When I leave students with parting words after a semester of Women’s History—a truly life-changing class for most—I give them the tiniest bit of advice. . . to join the Sisterhood. Educated on the historical and current political issues facing women and young girls, they are eager to do something but don’t know where to start. Most of them don’t picture themselves with picket signs at the capitol so it’s important that they know there is a middle ground for women. In joining the Sisterhood, I say, we refuse to pick on each other for our parts, our adornments, our courage, our voices. We don’t slam each other to split the Sisterhood or to gain male approval. Instead, we give each other the benefit of the doubt and maybe even some support. The way that so many women make a million excuses for the men in their lives, so too do they refuse any flexibility with other women, even their best friends.

Having taught women’s issues for years, I found myself most profoundly affected by motherhood. Never before did I feel the glaring judgment of other women—or society at large—than I did as a new mom. As a woman, I’d grown up berating myself in front of the mirror since young childhood, but never doubted or blamed or ridiculed myself more than as a mother. When things got dicey with Amelia and it became apparent that she was not a ‘normal’ baby who followed the normal rules of infancy, I was shocked by the multitudes of comments, judgments, blames, and ‘advice’ that others gave me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a woman who’d talked to Justin only briefly about Amelia came up to me and said, “I told your husband that crying is just what babies do.”  I had a very quick flash of myself punching her in the face repeatedly before I calmly informed her that our baby didn’t cry. She screamed for hours and hours and hours at a time without consolation. Before she chirped about babies crying again, I cut her off and told her that Amelia had digestive issues that were very painful. She went on with some ‘advice’ from there, but I don’t remember the rest. I still don’t even know why I felt the need to explain myself to her, but I did and I had to explain this to everyone. I even had a very good friend suggest at one point that if I could just relax, then maybe Amelia could too. It still makes my skin crawl to think about that comment. Even after we had to take an ambulance to the hospital when she turned blue and appeared to DIE, the comments, critiques, and advice poured in. Everyone wants to feel validated by their own experience and therefore think that if I could just do what they did, my baby would be like theirs (which was often described as ‘good’ by the way, indicating that my baby, because she was hard, was therefore bad). It made the worst time of my life even more painful, isolating, and depressing. It made me feel like a failure and so very alone while also very defensive and angry. I remember confessing to a friend that I hated motherhood and even though it was in an email, I could just see her face recoil at the thought of my saying that out loud. And she was a friend who stuck it out to stay in touch with me. Most of them just disappeared. Even though Justin experienced this too we later learned that it hadn’t affected him nearly as horribly as it had me. The difference being that he didn’t feel the world blaming him or that his child’s inconsolable crying was somehow a reflection on him as a father.

Through it all, I realized something invaluable. I learned that as mothers, we all love our babies. We love our babies more than ourselves and would do anything for them. We love our babies the best we can. We do not love our babies through the same means, but with the same depths. That as mothers, we are the experts on our own children . . . sometimes even more than the experts. (holy shit, can you imagine coming to THAT conclusion?!) And that nobody else knows our babies the way we do as parents. And yet, under the glaring pressure, we push and judge each other so openly that even strangers, nonparents, and whomever else fall into the same game of blaming mom. It makes us feel validated when we know more than another or have a better behaved kid. At least 99.9% of our criticisms of other parents will hardly save a life—meaning we judge things that don’t matter. That aren’t going to kill a kid. Though this realization, I adopted a no-judgment policy. When the frazzled mom is leading three screaming children through Target long after bedtime, I just think to myself, “that poor mama must be having a hell of a day.” When I see the mom on her Blackberry at the park while her kid tries to get her attention, I give her the benefit of the doubt. It might be the only time she can be alone all day. Give her a break! We can’t all be ON and perfect all the time. And you know what? Sometimes those ugly moments happen out in the open. Shouldn’t we help each other out rather than take that vulnerable moment to point fingers? Add to it all the ongoing pressure to look as if our bodies never grew or birthed babies and is it any wonder that so many moms look like zombies? Like people who’ve just given up? Or that they act like zombies? And lash out at each other—the only other vulnerable people in their gaze?

Mothers of the same generation are each others’ greatest resource. Unfortunately, it’s motherhood that pulls us away from our friends and often strains the long-running friendships we had pre-baby. Just when we need it the most, the Sisterhood appears to vanish. And in working at my no-judgment policy, I find that I most often fail in refusing to judge myself.

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