“The child must be awake, fed and dressed before seven in the morning!” That first line of my sleep and feeding schedule that I printed out and finally hung in the middle of the living room still buzzes through my head every now and then. Previous schemes, distinguished by their inconspicuous tone and pastel pink design, were not popular. The desire to recover something from the Temple led me to this emergency measure: Iron discipline had to be introduced to avoid chaos.
The drive to order is an understandable response to the massive loss of control and insane lack of sleep that comes with having a baby. Many books, websites, (online) magazines, and blogs or vlog posts that focus on “young mothers” meet this need with their upbeat tone and inclusive mindset. An image of motherhood is created as a practical matter, with tips on how to enjoy playing with your child and healthy snacks you can prepare (for yourself too). Clutter is avoided by clear daily divisions and directions, presented in the form of weekly calendars that not only describe baby’s developments but also paint a picture of “your life with an x week old”.
The unique meaning of motherhood seems to be revealed in the struggle
Despite these calendars, my daughter’s arrival didn’t chart the way too much as it plunged me into the chaotic present where days seem to last forever and at the same time I have no control over the time that passes. I wasn’t able to follow the strict schedule until bedtime, but the promise of a clear structure still appealed to me. At the same time, I also experience this common concept of fatherhood, with decisiveness, direction, and joy as a holy trinity, as oppressive. By understanding parenting primarily as something you don’t think about, but as something you do, and — especially for mothers — instead, as something you synchronize with, there is little room for expansion in the uniqueness of the experience.
What makes the experience of motherhood so unique is hard to describe in general terms. As American writer and poet Adrian Rich puts it in her feminist reference work born of women: “I only knew I had experienced something, that was the essence of a woman’s life, something that, despite all the misery, was key to the meaning of life.” The unique meaning of motherhood appears precisely in the struggle, or even the inability, to understand this experience clearly and unambiguously.
Rich describes the trauma caused by the birth of her child. Looking back, I realized how unprepared she was for the new reality as a mother, constantly torn between joy and exhaustion. Her memoirs show this internal division: the passionate love she feels for her child at times and at the same time the inability to love constantly and selflessly. Despite all the well-intentioned advice with an emphasis on “going on,” I was most refreshed by real musings about parenting, like Rich’s advice, which highlights a lack of direction and decisiveness.
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My boyfriend and I had known each other for six months until the day I found out I was pregnant. I don’t remember any obvious symptoms, but rather an indefinable feeling, which I thought could easily be attributed to the end of summer as the beginning of a new life. “Is it planned or unplanned but desirable?” He asked the friendly assistant for midwifery practice while taking the phone. I just wrote my name, date of birth and address. “That’s the last thing.”
Our daughter is now over a year old. She can’t walk on her own yet, but she does very well behind a stroller. Along the bank too. Without support, she still does not trust her curved and spongy legs. Its steps are wooden and solid. This surprised me, because she has a very flexible body. Now that she’s able to straighten herself out, she looks more and more like a human rather than a helpless animal or, more mysteriously, a little creature. Their vivid developments were captured on photos and video. When I scroll through it on my phone the same time appears in reverse chronological and linear fashion. What a contradiction to my chaotic perception of time since becoming a mother.
“I do all the practical things a mother has to do, but is that really the case?”
Many parents experience a loss of control and the related crisis, writes English sociology professor Tina Miller in her book The Sense of Motherhood: A Narrative Approach. The intensity of care, both physical and emotional, accompanying the arrival of a child can upset the existing (mental) balances. “I do all the practical things a mother has to do. It never really occurred to me that I was a mother. It’s like I’m playing that part in a play, but is that really the reality and is that all motherhood is all about?”
Miller’s research shows that the experience of alienation, expressed here by one of the mothers interviewed, is common. Miller offers the following explanation for this: The experience of early parenthood is so deep that it does not fit easily into the narrative (which we have created) about ourselves and our lives. On the contrary, this event turns this story upside down. This leads not only to a feeling of uncertainty and despair, but also to a break in time: it indicates “before” and “after”. Parenting is nothing short of a transformative experience.
The crisis of parenthood as an experience of discontinuity is made concrete by Canadian writer Rachel Kosk. in her book life work She describes how her face feels as she looks for physical signs of chaos and disfigurement. She’s looking for an eyebrow that slips into her cheek, an ear sticking out from her forehead, or a zipper at the back of her skull that’s wide open. She realized her disbelief that, after all that had happened, she still existed in the same shape. Really beaten.
Such a break throws the “before,” existence as a non-parental person, away in time to infinity. Although I defended my Ph.D. in philosophy only a month before the birth of my daughter, the abstract philosophical texts seemed wholly insufficient even to start thinking about the new fears and feelings that were being imposed on me. I remember reading an advertisement for a conference from my former De Beauvoir mates with squinted eyes as I quieted the room with my droning daughter. I should have stopped trying to read a book before and there’s little left but I take turns checking the news and email. The conference had a promising title “New Horizons for the Twenty-first Century”. Previously it would have interest me, but now it seems extremely unlikely that a deliberately childless Simon will be able to offer relevant views of my life.
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Regarding motherhood, Rich writes, “The most important thing a woman can do for another woman is to clarify and maximize her idea of true potential.” In my opinion, this requires more than sharing practical advice. It involves looking for new ways to think about and talk about the experience of parenthood. For example, Cusk uses metaphors about violence and imprisonment to come to an understanding of a deeply and deeply confusing experience.
“Every time she cries, my breasts are like prison guards investigating a disturbance, two dumb moon faces approaching her, silencing her, taking opiates.” Kesk describes how she feels isolated with her child, isolated from the rest of society. Isolated from the outside world, she is at the mercy of her child’s urgent and illegible demands. She is overwhelmed by this disguised weakness as her body, which no longer appears to be its own, responds to the baby’s cues.
While Cusk’s discourse on families is controversial, there is also recognition within the dominant notion of parenting that caring for children can be stressful and stressful. Many articles discuss the possibility that you will sometimes skip it (“even though you love your children so much”). There are also the more exciting anonymous interviews with unfortunate mothers (“I love my children very much, but I will never choose them again”).
However, these pervasive experiences are rarely used to reflect on still valid assumptions about the meaning of motherhood. For example, the isolation of mothers with children or young children is often seen as normal. Spending an entire day with the kids and adjusting his own rhythm of life to suit his style is normal. Rather than critically questioning such ideas about motherhood, mothers’ experiences and tribulations are often seen as individual problems that require a solution. The advice to moms is to always think about themselves (and their relationships) now and then. Nice shopping or a day in the sauna, or as Rich wrote in the 1970s: the advice to “let your husband take you to dinner to a French restaurant, or to buy a new dress.” Is that what Rich is referring to when you talk about maximizing real potential? exactly the contrary. Rich is not content with denouncing the “illusion that most women have husbands and money.” She also argues that focusing on sporadic “outings” or “rewards” leaves everyday experiences as they are.
No doubt wanting to have ‘my time’ means something different now that I’m grown up
I didn’t need an escape as much as I wanted to escape, but I think that’s something else. Also, I’ve often heard myself say I “need some time to myself”. I can count on gestures of approval and understanding. However, I myself did not know the exact meaning of this standard phrase. There’s no doubt that wanting to have “me time” means something different now that I’m much older. It expresses not only the desire to experience time continuously, but also the desire to be able to use time for myself rather than coincide with it, for time to be myself.
As the American writer Sarah Mangusu in her book The Fragment continuity Notes: “I was living against the continuity of time. Then the child’s continuity became a background of continuous time to live against† Sometimes I also feel like I don’t exist anymore as a main character or even as an extra character, but I’ve become the background for my daughter. To be the mountainous area on which you climb and leave traces, bruises and scrapes, firmly clinging to the soft ground.
Gradually the stampede turned into a crawl. This gave my daughter access to a new and larger site. I watch from a distance as she carefully explores this new decor, which now extends beyond the confines of my body. The distance between us grows, and with it the space to understand the transformative experience of parenthood.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on October 30, 2021
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of October 30, 2021