Q: What is your sense of self as a mother?
A: I was going to be a cool mother. I was going to rumble up to daycare in the Mustang Bullitt and unload a baby wearing the hippest of outfits and have a rule that the staff was not allowed to call her "princess" and so on. Of course it turned out that the realities of a car seat in the back of a two-door muscle car, and the ludicrousness of not getting use out of the fifty-some pieces of clothing we were given as gifts, overrode any investment in coolness I have. So I make a subdued entrance in my Focus, and hand over a baby who, when she's not dressed in pink head to toe, might well be wearing a shamrock-festooned onesie reading "Daddy's Lucky Charm" (it has long sleeves! fall wardrobe!). I don't even attempt to convince anyone that she's dressed that way ironically.
Like I've said before, I never thought of myself as a "natural mother", which term I think I defined as someone warm and hospitable and nurturing, who keeps a welcoming home and loves other people's children. Me, not so much. And so I fell back on the idea that I could be a cool mother, which was always ludicrous because I have never been cool at anything. Fortunately I produced an incredibly cool baby who wears the shamrock onesies and pink frilly jackets with aplomb. And I'm gradually figuring out that I don't need to be a generic ideal of motherhood: I need to be a mother to this very specific child, in our very specific family, while keeping myself happy and sane in my own specific way. YOU DON'T SAY.
It also occurred to me, because I write down lots of deep thoughts when I should be doing the dishes, that part of my struggling with a sense of me-as-mother is due to what we are led to believe about our bodies post-children. For me, it started with the breast-feeding debacle, when - setting aside my poor milk production and my need for screenings - the way my breasts were treated by the lactation consultants and nurses made me angrier than I have previously admitted to anyone. I've had breast cancer treatment, for crying out loud; you don't get more handsy towards the boobs than that. But no one involved in my cancer treatment or my post-treatment care ever just grabbed my boob and hauled it about without a by-your-leave or even a warning, the way the nurses and lactation consultants did. I only went to one breast-feeding support group, despite the enormous struggles we were having, and I only went to that one because Berowne was worried about me, and I made some excuse about how I couldn't try to feed her then and fled after fifteen minutes. I could not stand the thought of ever having someone treat my boobs like that again, and I knew seeing a lactation consultant meant just that. There really was an attitude that my breasts were not part of me-the-human at all: that they were merely tools which I was too stupid to use correctly and they had to be taken out of my hands. The very people waxing the most rhapsodic about how this was a beautiful natural bonding thing were treating my breasts like they were not connected to a human at all and were nothing but milk production machines (in my case, very faulty ones). I immediately wanted nothing to do with this.
I didn't even tell Berowne this, because - tellingly - it didn't seem like a good enough reason to stop. Wanting my body to belong to me again seemed equivalent to wishing that I hadn't had a baby. I don't at all support the Fit Mom brand of shaming, but I also refuse to accept that if you choose to have a baby then you forfeit all right to your body as your own. That it becomes just a tool and you should only be aware of or invested in the nurturing things it can do for your child, not anything it can do for your own health or pleasure.
Clearly, I'm cheating. I honestly feel that way sometimes, and that I must be merely watching this child until her real mother, who is willing to give up all bodily autonomy for her, comes back from building yurts for orphans and sweeps Perdita away to raise her in Brooklyn and Tibet with the money from her MacArthur genius grant and assistance from the rest of her interpretive dance troupe.
Yes, I know that the idea of a mother who gives up everything for her child also not being present during the child's first five months doesn't make any sense. This is not about logic. This is about feeling like I can't deserve something this joyful because I'm not miserable enough (which is not about logic either, obviously), and about being defensive regarding my fiercely drawn boundaries and my insistence on retaining them, and about having been one of those kids who's supposed to set the world on fire and never did.
And I think I hit some sort of nail near the head with the concept that you only deserve joy if you're miserable at the same time. We are, after all, endlessly fed the claim that motherhood is suffering, sacrifice, Profound Love, and no fun. During my pregnancy I only heard that it would be a) the hardest thing ever and b) the most rewarding thing ever. Sounded solemn as hell, either way. In the event it's been utterly farcical on so many levels, and I laugh so much. Far more a Marx Brothers movie than a Pinter play, thank god.
Of course, maybe motherhood is fun for me because I abandon my precious infant
Q: She's sleeping through the night?
A: Most of the time! Although every time I brag about it she's up at two a.m., which serves me right. Some weekend mornings she even consents to go back to sleep after her five o'clock bottle! The first time this happened, though, it wasn't restful because I kept turning over in bed towards my bedside table, frustrated and thinking I must have left my lamp on. Eventually I realized that the irritating light was, in fact, coming from that thing called "the sun", which had not risen before I in five months.
Q: How is her separation anxiety?
A: Right, "hers", har har. Actually, she has developed the desire to always have me in eyesight when we're home: though she's perfectly happy to be left at daycare or with Berowne (who works from home two days a week, the lucky dog!), if I am home with her I have to tote her or drag her swing with me wherever I go or there is screaming. It being a very, very small house, this isn't any real hardship, although it does make taking the dog out or fetching the laundry from the line challenging. But we have nice conversations in the kitchen while I'm cleaning her bottles.
Q: Still in the swing? How long will that last?
A: Well, she can't quite sit unassisted yet; after a few seconds she tends to tip sideways. But she's so invested in crawling that her tummy time has become a constant Training Montage, complete with appropriate musical accompaniment (because, as established, I am having entirely too much fun with this whole thing). Who knows what sort of Pavlovian reaction she may have, down the road, to the opening chords of "Eye of the Tiger".
Q: What have you read in between this silliness?
The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich Boser. Intriguing, although at times it just turns into a long list of the con men and otherwise sketchy people Boser meets during his research, which gets a little tedious.
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. Amazing. The Snow White story, updated to the 1950s and about race, and just astonishing. I was so mad when it ended, not just because the end is crazy-abrupt and without closure (my one quibble about its narrative structure) but because I didn't want to stop reading.
Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve. Meh. Woman loses memory during WWI; is amazing at everything; all men are obsessed with her; best mother ever. Sorry, but I find that kind of protagonist more and more boring all the time. And I lost patience entirely when our amnesiac heroine discovers she has children, after a scene in which she, whom we are told is a brilliant nurse whose brilliant nursing has all come back to her, examines her own body and can't even be sure whether she's a virgin or not. THE FACE I MADE WHEN I READ THAT. Sure, her youngest is eight or so, and I know they say stretch marks fade (the ones puberty gave me sure as hell never did, but hey), but it still wasn't a successful choice on Shreve's part to go the "my heroine is so physically flawless that a trained nurse can't tell she's had children" route. "I so identify with this woman! I am invested in her success!" said no reader ever.
Wait, says this reader, I thought you were just all up in arms about women being allowed to get their bodies back post-baby. In the sense of being allowed to feel ownership over one's body, yes. In the sense of completely unrealistic expectations of getting said body to look like it never grew a human, no. Even if I lose these tenacious last four pounds, and get close to being as toned as I was before (actually, my arms are better than they've ever been, because my child is huge), I'll probably always have the stretch marks and the linea negra. And I'm okay with that. I do look different: I look like I had a baby. Fancy that.