Friday, July 28, 2006

"making a child your career is a dangerous move"

If there were a poster girl for "ambivalence about becoming a mother" it would be me. I have gone back and forth on this issue so many times that Za simply hangs back and waits for me to land somewhere. What fuels my ambivalence is the comments I so often here from other mothers who are my age and hold down academic jobs as well. I ask mothers regularly what made them choose to have children or what their lives are a like now, hoping to get some clarity on my own ambivalence about motherhood. Almost anyone who senses my ambivalence, and is a mother of young children, interprets it as leaning more toward the "no," and so emphasize that I should really want to do this.

Last weekend I asked my friend Emma's colleague what swayed her to have her daughter, the impact on her life, you know, the usual questions. She paused for a moment and then said she has an analogy that she trots out whenever people ask her about whether or not having children is an amazing experience: "I tell people that they should want to have children the way that artists feel an imperative to create. If you don't have this profound imperative to have children, then you shouldn't do it since the time and energy it demands of you is almost insane and only an insane passion can keep you going." Needless to say, her advice was frightening.

Last night Za and I were walking around Mt. Pleasant (D.C.) and ran into this woman and her little daughter on the street. She asked us where we were headed, and we told her about this fantastic restaurant we wanted to try out. She had a sort of weepy look and said "well, we don't get a chance to eat out much," and nodded toward her daughter. Again, I found myself crestfallen by this exchange. One of our party, however, has a 5 year-old, and he quickly responded that he takes his daughter out to eat all the time. Hmmm! That classic clash of parenting styles that only further confuses me. Most of my colleagues with children remind me, when I gush about a new film, that they won't be getting to the theater any time soon. These sorts of comments rarely sell me on the joys of parenting. In fact, I have rarely had someone tell me how profoundly it would shape my life.

And, yet, we live in a culture that portrays parenting, especially motherhood, as the absolute fulfillment of one's life, one's being. I haven't met many mothers of young children who don't look at me longingly, envying my childfree life. Today, I read the Happy Feminist's post on the potential tedium of mothering. She links her readers to this essay by a journalist on how her children bore her. Boy, if you ever wanted to be more ambivalent, read lines like these:

All those glossy magazine spreads showing celebrity mothers looking serene at home with their children serve only to make women feel inadequate. What the pictures don't show is the monotony, loneliness and relentless domesticity that goes with child-rearing.

They don't show the tantrums, the food spills and the ten aborted attempts at putting on shoes. They don't show the husband legging it to the pub so he doesn't have to change a nappy, either.

Research tells us that mothers drink the most when they have young children. Is that because talking to anyone under the age of ten requires some sort of lobotomy?

Arabella Cant, an art director with two young children, admits that she considered jumping off a bridge in the early stages of her career in motherhood. 'Bringing up children is among the most boring and exhausting things you can do,' she says.

Her solution was to avoid subjugating her own life to that of her chil-dren's. 'I'm certainly not traipsing around museums or sitting on the floor doing Lego if that's what you mean by being at home,' she explains. 'I'm loving it, but my children fit into my life and not the other way around.

This last paragraph reminds me of the sentiments of one my closest friends, and I might add, one of the healthiest people I know. I spent a week with her and her young children and it was clear that she operated by this principle. She absolutely refuses to be guilted into activities or any silly idea that the child is the center of her world. Seeing her mothering, and the total partnership she has with her husband in that endeavor (they have both taken full semester leaves to trade off being the stay-at-home parent), gave me hope.

But, alas, I read commentaries like the one above--and don't get me wrong, I applaud the honesty with which she has written this--and all of my years of reading Simone de Beauvoir flood back. de Beauvoir has written one of the most devastating accounts of motherhood in the Second Sex. She stresses the monotony, repetitiveness, and tedium of raising children and tending to the home (tasks that were inseparable in her bourgeois world of turn-of-the century Paris).

I remember distinctly fearing that these activities would crush my spirit; I feared that I would lose my identity, my passion, and my drive. Those are thoughts, however, from a twenty-something-year-old. Now I am about to turn 36, and I think my ideas about being a mother are more nuanced, mature, and realistic. We don't live in a world where are choices are as confined as de Beauvoir's mother's were. Women can be mothers, have careers, and find amazing partners to share the labor with them. Women can also plan their pregnancies for when they have the resources to get help in the role of parenting. I don't think it has to crush you, and I have seen first-hand evidence of this.

But, I cannot deny that the longing looks I get from colleagues, when they see me head out for a weekend on the town, continue to haunt me.