The impossible burden of motherhood

I’m sitting at the table, the newspaper is open in front of me. The table is strewn with bread crumbs. Also the floor. My daughter has just climbed out of her high chair and is eating the last piece of currant cake under the table.

The dining room is the lowest point of our apartment on the ground floor. I sit with my back to the window, of which only the upper half is above street level, and look down at the staircase to the living room. There is a curtain in front of the corridor which not only keeps the heat out but is also a hiding place for my daughter.

After taking her final bite, she enthusiastically threw herself into the silver screen. She turned around several times until the fabric completely surrounded her. Now I have to ask where she is. We have played this game endless times. How long will she think she is invisible if she herself does not see the world?

I look at my daughter. Her laugh loves me. I feel no physical affection like tenderness for my baby. Makes me soft and smooth.

Until he takes over my head again. Do you even know what world you were put in?

The weight overpowers me. I seem to carry this latent heaviness with me from motherhood. Although the relentless responsibilities of caring have turned my life upside down in a tangible sense, the feeling of being cared for has fundamentally changed me.


When we recently had a beer at the neighborhood pub on the corner, my friend asked me, “What do you want to go back to most of all,” referring to the time before our daughter’s arrival. On tape, the baby monitor was flashing its reassuring yellow light (“Yes there is calling, there is no crying”). We just exchanged a breakdown of what our daughter has been doing and saying, or well we’re trying to say, over the past few days. Now is the time to have a real conversation. “For lightness.” As I said this, I especially felt the heavy weight that the word lightness carried. As if talking emphasizes inaccessibility.

French author Marguerite Duras distinguishes between the meaning of care in relation to parenthood and the responsibilities of nurturing and caring as “the external and internal order of the home”. In her 1987 essay “Home and Home,” she states, “External order is the visual management of the home, and internal order is the arrangement of the thoughts, emotional stages, and infinite feelings associated with children.”

It is clear to Doras that these difficult tasks fall to women. It makes powerful affirmations about the external order, the visual management of the home. It takes a lot of repetition and effort to turn the disruption and chaos that a family brings into a calm, unobtrusive continuity. So don’t put off cleaning. later not found. They also offer an extensive list of items for storage (“drying board!”).

But as difficult as the external arrangement of the house is, it is the internal arrangement of the house that women, according to Duras, spend years thinking about. “The bottom of the river in which their thoughts flow while children are still young is how they are protected from harm.” She offers no practical advice this time, but notes: “Usually you reproduce in vain.”

Where caretakers have a clear function, this is not the case with caretakers. I really don’t think I can keep the evil out of my fears, do I? What do I want to protect my daughter from? Against people who want to harm her, but also against fate, which I don’t know how it is with us. Against the future, which, given the climate catastrophe and political instability, does not seem very optimistic.

societal expectations

Although I am by no means implying that only mothers care, it is in order to understand my own experience that I find guidance in feminist literature defining the theme of the caring role of mothers. Attention is paid not only to the challenging nature of caregiving tasks, but also to the specific social expectations of mothers. For example, British feminist and literature scholar Jacqueline Rose shows that feeling anxious adds a new dimension to the feminist claim that much of what is asked of mothers. Rose collections moms, “An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” asks mothers in a specific way: They have been made the impossible request to create a safe space for their children in an insecure world. In other words, mothers should be a buffer between the world and their children. It is the place where all unresolved must be settled. Mom has to stick the imaginary plaster, kiss it, and say it’s going to be okay. Rose talks about “kind of crazy” to expect moms to be able to stay calm at all times.

According to Rose, this ignores the fact that one’s own fears and desires affect the mother’s ability to calm down. This falsely indicates that the mother has no inner world, no inner life to struggle with, and so can instinctively comfort and protect her offspring.

She also says that society expects mothers to actually keep all misery at bay with their love and calmness. Rose talks about harsh expectations. After all, the world is dangerous. And this impossible requirement not only causes mothers to fail, but also puts the onus on mothers to perpetuate the lie that the world is a safe place, when “if anyone knows this is bullshit, it’s a mother.”

How great is this burden, or can I feel it, I read in the poem Good bones by American poet Maggie Smith.

world is the least

Fifty percent is terrible, and that’s conservative

Appreciation, though I keep this from my kids

In this excerpt, Smith takes stock of the world. Her view is bleak and frightening: the world is at least half awful. She seems to turn to her children when she highlights the conclusion of her assessment: For every cute stranger, there’s someone out there who wants to hurt you. The seriousness of this observation is overwhelming.

Although she is aware of the danger that could arise anywhere, Smith remains silent about her children. It also bears the burden of perpetuating the lie that the world is safe and good. It is an indication of the anxiety you feel as a mother. “I carry my fear of the world where I once held my children.”

One look at the news is enough to see that Smith’s (“fifty percent terrible”) assessment is indeed a cautious one. In an effort to avert disaster, or at least to distance myself from disaster, I close the paper and turn the back page. A full-page display of wine (“Now with the free decanter”) suggests there’s not much going on, but headlines about natural disasters, war, and injustice have lodged in my head and degenerate into frightening impotence. In my efforts to keep the dangerous world at bay, what I am trying to fend off seems to store itself in my body.

safe space

I want to clear the table and make coffee. My daughter goes in and out of the curtains looking completely absorbed in her game but as soon as she got up she froze. In one fell swoop you lose all interest in the white world into which you have just been absorbed. Crying, she follows me to the kitchen. When I grind coffee, it sticks to my legs.

“It was as if an invisible thread stretched between us and broke, and the child felt unbearably abandoned as I trekked through an area outside our narrow, defined borders.” This is how American writer and poet Adrienne Rich describes it in the groundbreaking feminist book born of women The oppressive gravity her child exerts on her as she tries to break free for a brief moment from the closed circuit, the “magnetic field”, in which they exist together.

Rich shows that the societal expectation for mothers to create a safe space for their children is about more than keeping out the hostile outside world. Moms should be a safe place by themselves. It reminds me of Doras, a comment that seems casual, but is put together with her signature affirmation: “Mother is home.” This phrase stuck in my head. I am not only the barrier, the solid walls that protect, but also the space itself, which provides warmth and shelter.

It is precisely this shelter, according to Rich, “warmth, tenderness, continuity, firmness” that her child must convince her that she will continue to exist in her person. But Rich insists that this desire is too great for a single human being to satisfy. In this, too, the mother cannot help but fail.

I’m home. My walls are porous and the room temperature fluctuates. I prefer to keep the blinds closed because the view scares me. But inside it becomes stifling. Nothing to do but open the curtains. I have to accept that I cannot offer my daughter hope in a world where all is well or all is well. The only thing I can do to overcome the heaviness is to bring out what is beautiful and meaningful among all the misery.

I pour the last bit of frothed milk into my daughter’s drinking cup. I can’t put the cap on anymore. She carefully lifts the cup to the table. Diluted with water, drink the lukewarm contents in a few gulps. A narrow beam of sunlight shines through the dining room. He creeps across the table and draws a thin luminous line on the dirty floor. At this time of year, the sun is only able to find its way for a short time.

After I finish my coffee, I suggest going for a bike ride. My daughter rushes towards the door. We wear our coats. Before closing the front door behind us, I snatch her bike helmet from the coat rack. It’s a bright day.

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