Friday, October 26, 2007

motherhood: the dream and the reality

A while back, Danigirl wrote about a contentious and offensive book, Motherhood is a Trap, or something like that. She picked up on this particular quote:

“Generally speaking, people who have children have them for the wrong reasons,” she says. “They have them because they’re afraid of being alone, and they want to grasp a tiny bit of immortality. And anyway, we never get that immortality. You are doing something that is very foolish for society just because you have believed something that is not true.”

Danigirl asked her readers, why did you have children? And now I want to answer.

Whereas Danigirl always knew that above all else she wanted to be a mother, that it was her calling, I knew no such thing. When I was in high school, I thought children were parasites that sucked the life out of their parents and I couldn't understand why anyone would want to bring about their own demise. It seemed like something only really stupid people would do. In my daydreams of the future, I usually inhabited one of two fantasies: 1) I was an underpaid groom who lived in the loft above a barn with a big dog and a couple of horses (who stayed at the high-end barn for free) and worked long, solitary hours exercising horses and shoveling shit and doing all the work their owners were too lazy to do; or 2) I was a reclusive alcoholic in a decrepit shack with a typewriter far away from anyone and who only made weekly trips to the small nearby town for supplies, mostly booze.

After I fell in love, at the old age of 17, long after my friends all had, my fantasies were no longer so solitary; they involved a male life-partner and I came to own the horse stable or make enough money with few enough ties to travel the world, with my life-partner as a sidekick. I remember once telling my mom (who has three kids) about my view of children as parasites and my intention never to fall prey to that trap. She responded that she had never seen her children that way, that yes she'd made sacrafices, but they'd never felt like sacrifices and her children (me included) had actually enriched her life considerably. Right off the top of her head, she pointed out that she would never have known anything about horses without me, or travelled to so many countries without my sister to visit in them, or have learned about art without my brother's talent. This conversation was a revelation to me. It had never occurred to me that children might give something back to their parents.

A few years later, either just before or just after my first year of university, I visited my brother in Victoria. He's eight years older than me, and at that time had been with his partner for five years, and he told me about how much he'd like to have children. I thought he was becoming staid but his enthusiasm was intriguing. He was enthralled with how a child is literally created by love and fascinated by the separateness and yet connectedness of a child from and to the source of that love.

I was 22 when my brother had his first child, and she was four months old when I met her. I was totally swept away by the way she seemed to smile so much more brightly at me than anybody else, by her eyes following my big mop of red hair around the room, likely bigger and redder than anything else she'd seen in her short life on top of someone's head. After that, I knew I wanted kids.

The first time Sugar D and I, er, consummated our affection for one another, I told him that if anything unexpected resulted, I would not have an abortion. I've always been pro-choice, but at that stage of my life, it would no longer have been the right choice for me. Luckily, I never had to make that decision anyways. After we'd been together for a few years, I started to make it clear to Sugar D that I wanted children, and that at some point, his not knowing whether he wanted his kids would no longer be acceptable to me.

I remember trying to persuade him with all the good reasons for bringing children into our lives, but now, on the other side of all that, I cannot for the life of me remember what they were. The reality of parenthood has eclipsed all my earlier, mistaken ideas I guess. I do remember saying that we were already so boring that a kid would fit right in with our family-friendly Saturday morning market trips and not going out on Friday nights life. I was certainly not trying to capture some bit of immortality, because the one expectation I have of my child(ren) is that he is his own person, not some little version of me running around. I was also most definitely not afraid of being alone because I had lots of people in my life and a pretty supportive partner (except for the marriage-kids disagreement, which ended up being very nicely resolved).

I think what it came down to is that I felt I had a lot of love to offer, which is more than some poor children have. More selfishly, I thought that caring for a child and watching him or her experience so many firsts might renew my own wonder in the world, might make me see the world with fresh eyes. And it has. That said, the reality of becoming a mother has enriched my life than I could have ever dreamed possible.

Most surprising of all the changes motherhood has wrought in me is how much I have learned about myself. Who would have thought that being wholly responsible for the survival of another being, so precious they trump everything, would be a means to self-awareness? But it has been for me.

First up, parenthood has taught me about my relationship with Sugar D. Before Swee'pea was born, I thought I was the more emotionally resilient partner; not to say that Sugar D was not emotionally resilient, just that I was more so (anxiety notwithstanding). Becoming a mother has revealed my vulnerability in surprising ways. When I was going crazy with middle of the night growth spurts and a baby who wouldn't stop nursing or sleep, it was Sugar D whose company kept me from totally losing it. And even now, after those crazy, hormonal and awkward early weeks, I lose it far more than Sugar D does, and he always comes to my rescue.

Before I had Swee'pea, I was pretty prone to anxiety. I'd learned how to cope and was doing a lot better, but I would never have considered moving to Toronto, the way I have over the last few months, where people have to ride the subway (horrors!), and elevators up VERY tall buildings, where the streets are dangerous and busy, and people are scary. I know those are silly notions but I have always felt tremendously intimidated by the Big City; I mostly enjoyed visiting as long as I could avoid subways and elevators but it was always a relief to get home. I also didn't really care for the discomfort of long trips and preferred to stay close to home, although my world was beginning to broaden again, with considerable effort.

Now, Swee'pea provides a focus for my anxiety, a number onI have no anxiety. Nothing else really matters that much. And given that he's pretty portable and can be made happy and comfortable just about anywhere, I'm a lot more comfortable travelling away from home than I used to be. I suspect this came in large part from my role as a "travelling feeding bottle."

I have also learned about my ambition. I used to see myself as a coaster, someone who did the bare minimum to get by at work, someone who would choose not to have a paid job if some other financial means came about, who would be a stay-at-home mom in a heartbeat if we could swing it financially. But now that I am a mom, I have learned that I actually do like my job, and I love having a foot in both worlds by working only three days a week. Not only that, but I have discovered a new ambition in my working self. I've started to get frustrated with only being there three days a week, because it means that two days out of three I have to hand off some portion of my work. If I can hand it off to someone whose skills are similar to mine (i.e., another word-nerd), then it's fine. But if the only person I can hand off to has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, I can't trust that things will get done to my standard. And I don't like that.

I mentioned briefly a while back that a promotion has come available at my work. I'm excited at the prospect, enough that it being a full-time job is not a huge detriment. An opportunity like this likely won't come up again for years more. And working full-time might be nice, because it would take off some of the pressure off at my workplace to always be setting up back-ups and handing off work.

Before I became a mother, I may have been just as ambitious. But I also felt like more of a drone, even though I have never been a workaholic or anything like it. I'd lost my passion. Somehow, motherhood has rekindled my passion for photography and personal writing, for really seeing and smelling and hearing the world, for truly inhabiting the moment.

Yet even as I write this, I wonder if writing about these discoveries is somehow heretical to the cult of motherhood, or worse, if making these self-discoveries means I am a bad, selfish mother. That I should focus on the wondrousness of my child and his development, and not on mine. What do you think? How has motherhood surprised you?


Suz said...

Congratulations on the job offer, no matter what you decide.

I think that the only truth about what motherhood means is that it will mean different things to different people. Before the twins, for instance, I used to be fearfully ambitious. I worried about my career; I spent time and nurtured it. Now, it's not that I don't care. I just care less. That balance? It's a GOOD thing.

cinnamon gurl said...

Suz, I should clarify that I haven't been offered the job -- I've just applied for it.

And yes, it strikes me that motherhood brings balance. For lazy old me, that means more ambition, for more ambitious people, it means less.

Mad Hatter said...

Did this post get time-stamped buried or am I just behind in my reading.

Motherhood continues to surprise me. I said to a friend the other day that be a mother is like having my feminist awakening all over again: both good and bad. In addition to all the things you write about the child, being a mother has made me more political, more self-aware, and, oddly, more ambitious b/c I want my daughter to be proud of me. The ambitions themselves, though, get spread over several arenas in my life: the domestic, my writing, my career.

Mad Hatter said...

OK, now it's where it belongs.

kgirl said...

Motherhood has surprised me by a) showing me what pure love is, b) by kicking my ass into a new set of priorities that I never thought would come near me, let alone comfort and satisfy me, c) has made me reassess my relationships with others, and how my actions affect them and d) by being better at it than I ever thought I could possibly be, if I don't say so myself.

jen said...

wow. what a beautiful post.

motherhood and it's journey was filled with complications for me. i feared my own mothering, the loss of other things.

and yet now, with that fear and with those losses i can't imagine it any other way. M chose me to grow up with and i honor that and revel in it.

Mouse said...

I sometimes feel guilty that part of my particular love of motherhood is what it's done for my understanding and acceptance of myself. I also worry that I'm using the working through of his issues (sensory and social) as a way of working through my own, similar experiences.

I went back and forth on the idea of having a kid. I don't remember if there was anything specific that swayed me back to the "have" column, but I got there sooner than Trillian and truly felt the desire at an instinctual level. But I wouldn't describe that desire as "fear of being alone" or "attempt at immortality."

Karen said...

I think I know what you mean, about self-awareness, somehow in the midst of sacrifice - which really is just a charged up word for choice - we find out what really matters, and part of that is just finding out the parts of ourselves that matter most.

Kyla said...

It has changed me in a multitude of ways...most of which you mention here. Mostly, I've learned that I'm capable of much more than I ever thought I was. I'm challenged to be better because of these kiddos, I'm not limited by them.

Aliki2006 said...

Beautiful response to this complex questions--motherhood has completely surprised me in many ways, I think. By the way, I had to do some convincing with Scott before he would come around to the idea of having a child.

Good luck on deciding about that promotion!

crazymumma said...

I'm happy for the most part. The depth of my love surprised me.

I posted it once. Having children saved me from being a shambling muttering wreck of a person.

Thay make me look at the world in a hopeful and profound way.

But. They also bring me to my knees in absolute frustration.

krista said...

ok- I won't write this on my own blog, but maybe I can confess it here. Right now motherhood is surprising me for my complete lack of interest in it. I am struggling to care, struggling to play, struggling to be with my kids. I have always been the kind of mom who parents really mindfully, and deeply- engaging with serious love and thought- and how motherhood is surprising me right now, amidst dating and divorce, and moving, and money problems, and my own development as a person- is that I really don't want to mother at all.

And it is uncomfortable and makes me feel guilty for feeling that way.

But that's where I find myself. And it really surprises me to find myself here, feeling this way.

Christine said...

my children have surprised me in that my commitment to community service and helping those in need has strengthened. i want the world to be a better place for them, as corny as that sounds. and i want them to be instruments in its betterment.

DaniGirl said...

Oh, finally I can comment on this! (Silly old Blogger interface!)

What an intriguing response - and I'm so glad I asked the question now. I really liked your observation "Who would have thought that being wholly responsible for the survival of another being, so precious they trump everything, would be a means to self-awareness?" That was a revelation for me, too. I don't think it has anything to do with being a bad mother or selfishness - that's just one of many gifts Swee'Pea has brought into your life, just like your mother observered about the horses and the travel.

IMHO, mothers who spend ALL their time and energy marvelling over the wonder that is their progeny need to get out more.

niobe said...

For me, motherhood is pretty much exactly what I expected. Well, except for the twins dying part.

cinnamon gurl said...

Niobe, it occurred to me this weekend, after I'd already posted, that my question was horribly exclusive. I'm sorry if it caused you or anyone else more pain than you've already experienced.

Mimi said...

Intriguing post, Sin ...

I think about selfish and unselfish reasons for having kids and then I decide that I think they're all pretty selfish reasons; I mean, it's a decision that *I* get to make, not Unborn Prospective Baby, right?

I'm learning that I'm a pretty good mom, actually, but I'm not perfect, especially not at 4am, or, really, at 12am. I feel a push-pull, where I know her baby years are zooming by and I'm sad, but I'm glad too, because the older she gets, the more interesting as a person she becomes, the less of a total pain in the ass. Is that selfish? We're growing together.