When I was pregnant, other mothers promised the following would magically occur after the birth of my child:
1. I would want to stay up all night, staring at my sleeping, sweet-faced child.
2. I would be able to recognize my child’s cries from a sea of also-crying children.
3. I would miss my children terribly when they weren’t within arm’s reach.
4. I would absolutely love being a mom.
None of that happened.
When other mothers promise that certain things will happen automatically, and then those things don’t happen automatically, it makes a gal feel like a totally inept mother. Inept and abnormal.
A mother who couldn’t recognize her own child’s cry? Certainly Buddy, in his colicky first six months, gave me plenty of opportunity to hear his cry.
A mother who didn’t need to stare at her beautiful sleeping baby? Yeppers. When the babe was asleep, I wanted to be asleep OR I wanted to be writing. Or eating some form of cheese on some form of cheese vehicle. Or surfing Nordstrom.com, putting things in my shopping bag and then forgetting I had put them there.
It also took me a while to admit that some days, I simply didn’t love being the mother of babies . . . or toddlers . . . nor did I love Sweetie’s Helen Keller phase. I make a lousy Annie Sullivan.
And yet, there has never been a question, not one single doubt, that there’s anything weak about the Love I feel for Buddy and Sweetie.
The love just doesn’t look or feel like how I expected.
It’s a hard thing to articulate, a mother’s love, in ways that don’t sound cliché and sappy. It’s also hard to assign words to something that’s simultaneously basic and complex.
In some ways, the love I feel for Buddy and Sweetie is as solid and natural as the pit of a stone fruit. But it’s also like the pearl that sits on the meat of an oyster. It’s like a Rubix cube or a many-faceted gemstone. It’s also like a pile of dirt. Some days the love feels like bricks. Other days, like bubbles.
Other than that, I have a hard time explaining what I feel for my children. It must be some base animal instinct, some biological reaction, that mothers almost always love their children without question or reason.
But I had been promised (and therefore I expected) that if I loved my children, I would love the role of mother. So I worried I was not meant to be a mother. Or, that I was not one of those natural mothers.
Of course, not all innate, “natural” maternal actions and reactions are examples of good parenting.
When I was in kindergarten, our family took home the class gerbil. During the vacation, this particular gerbil decided to give birth to three or four pink, hairless babies.
She then proceeded to eat them.
In hindsight, these babies were likely stillborn, in which case this could have been an example of a mother’s grief. Or her desire to tidy up the place a bit. Animals, as we know, do some pretty violent, unsophisticated stuff sometimes. They can’t help it.
But recently I’ve noticed there’s something rather violent and unsophisticated, even animal-ish, about the way I love Buddy and Sweetie.
Which isn’t what I was expecting.
A few months ago, Husbandio and I noticed a weird-looking mole on Buddy’s upper arm. The dermatologist agreed it was weird-looking, that it might be something that was once called “juvenile melanoma.”
“They don’t call it ‘juvenile melanoma’ anymore,” she explained. “Apparently the word ‘melanoma’ frightened too many parents.”
“Take it out,” I said. “He doesn’t have baseball until Saturday or viola until Monday. Take it out. Now. Please.”
No stranger to the removal of weird moles, I moved to the chair where Buddy was reclining. I held his hand as they cleaned his arm and injected the lidocaine, and I began watching the “punch” excision.
Here I must pause to explain that I genuinely enjoy watching medical procedures. I like watching my own, and I like watching the procedures of others. I don’t get woozy or wiggy or grossed out. I just think bodies are pretty cool.
But apparently, I don’t think it’s cool to watch someone take a piece of my son.
Holding Buddy’s hand, I started to feel dizzy and sick and lightheaded. He was fine, but my face must have lost all color because the dermie forced me to sit down.
Even weirder: I kind of wanted to punch that dermatologist in the face. NO ONE takes a tiny chunk of my son. No one.
See? That’s a violent and irrational response. The response of a gerbil.
Then, just this week, I was watching Buddy’s baseball game when a parent carried over a sobbing Sweetie, explaining that a boy had pushed Sweetie off a concrete thing. YET AGAIN I had not recognized the sound of her crying. Another mother had to rescue her.
Holding her tight while she cried, I surveyed the damage. Sweetie’s shin was already bruising under a scrape of raw skin.
“Who did this?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm. “And do you want me to go talk to him?”
Sweetie nodded, sitting up and wiping her eyes.
“Good,” I said. “Let’s roll.”
When the mother-witness pointed out two boys making their way to the other side of the field, I literally sprinted after them, taking the shortcut (running through center field), hot on the trail of these punk, middle school-aged bullies.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Hey you! Why’d you push my daughter? Huh? Why’d you push her?!?!”
Turning to me, the thugs proceeded to make up some story about “not even being over near your daughter,” during which Sweetie caught up to me.
“Mommy,” she said, tugging my hand. “You chased the wrong boys.”
After I apologized profusely, I chased down the right thug, only to realize he was the child of a super-nice mother I know from the gym.
I looked down at Sweetie. “Um . . . I know that kid’s mom. Do we still need to talk to him?”
When Sweetie nodded, I took a deep breath and, in my explanation of the crime and the resulting injury, I proceeded to make this little boy cry. I came on too strong. I was far more aggressive than necessary. As a result, I felt obliged to track down this nice-mother’s email so I could send her an apology for my crazy mama bear antics.
See? I’m only a few brain cells more sophisticated that than poor mama gerbil.
And yet, I’m glad I want to protect my daughter from thugs. I’m glad I want to punch someone who’s cutting up my son. It means I am a natural mother after all.
But it’s taken me a while–years–to feel like a natural mom. We have these certain expectations, and if they aren’t met, we can feel like failures. Our expectations cause us to criticize and condemn ourselves and other mothers who make different family or parenting choices.
In this Huffington Post article, Elisabeth Badinter makes this statement: “Nature knows only one way to be a mother.”
That’s true. The mama gerbil didn’t pause to consider her various grieving options. She just started eating her babies. But, Badinter goes on to explain, we human mothers have choices and options.
[Women are] endowed with consciousness, personal histories, desires and differing ambitions. What some do well and with pleasure, others do badly or out of duty. By failing to take account of women’s diversity, by imposing a single ideal of motherhood, by pursuing the notion of a perfect mother — one who has the exclusive responsibility of making or breaking her children — we fall into a trap.
I once had a friend tell me that the birthing choices we make–whether to give birth with or without an epidural, in a hospital or birthing center or at home, with a midwife or with an OB–”says a lot about who we are as mothers.”
This friend chose to have a “natural” childbirth, whereas I had recently given birth to my second child, in a hospital, after a visit from Dr. Feelgood, the deliverer of epidurals. I felt slapped in the face, and her meanness, the way she judged the way I chose to welcome my children into the world, is still painful.
So how about this. Instead of focusing on whether we (or others) are meeting our own (or society’s) fixed and limited expectations, let’s focus on how we show our love, our encouragement, our dedication to our children.
If you are someone who does love every moment of motherhood, please don’t think I’m a monster.
Likewise, if you want to nurse your preschooler on the cover of TIME? Rock on. If you want to return to work two weeks after the birth of the babe? God bless you, sister. If you want to homeschool or send your kid to boarding school or enroll in the Waldorf School down the street? Great!
The different choices we make as mothers does not usually reflect the amount of love we feel for our children, and that’s the important thing, Love. The unimportant thing is those terrible expectations that society foists upon us.
So please, if you happen to hear one of my kids crying and I don’t notice, will you come get me? Chances are, I won’t have heard him or her.
Also, if you see me sprinting somewhere, in hot pursuit of a four-foot thug, please ask me if I’m sure I’m chasing the right guy. Chances are, I’m probably not.