A friend of mine likens becoming a mother to being in a “twilight zone between human and animal.” It sounds wrong – but writing this as my son, Lev, sleeps beside me in his basket, having turned 3 weeks old today and cried for most of the morning (inspiring me to flounce off to sleep in the kitchen – coming back, I found his dad napping with Lev in perfect harmony. Babies do sense their mother’s stress!) – I can relate.
I’m still the same person. I’m also a walking dairy farm, a cleaning machine, a soother of pain, a goddess who makes nearly every decision in Lev’s tiny universe so far, and sometimes I’m also just a comfort blanket to lie across on. In other words, I’m mother to a newborn.
Let me tell you – my participation in the feminist movement did NOT help me prepare for this turn of events!
Another friend recently said this on the subject:
When being a feminist is defined through liberation, both social and sexual, there is no room for being a mother – for caring for a completely helpless and dependent creature whose insistent needs make a woman if not housebound then at least place-bound* (esp those first six weeks!)
It struck a chord with me, because we rarely get to define sexual liberation as the freedom to conceive and bear a child. For millions of people, this path is fraught with danger – think of the women with little access to decent medical care, think of parents who are considered “deviant” because they are, say, not heterosexual, of the “wrong” skin colour, the “wrong” religious persuasion, etc. – but liberation itself is often defined solely as the freedom to prevent pregnancy and parenthood.
I blame the stupid abortion debate in the U.S. in particular for this – forced to defend the choice to terminate a pregnancy so strenuously, living in a culture of actual violence against abortion doctors, it’s like we run out of breath when it comes to everything else. The Right acts as though it has exclusive “dibs” on motherhood. The positive aspects of becoming a parent get hijacked by religious fundamentalists and other unpleasant people.
As a teenage feminist, I knew that a legal abortion was safer than childbirth. I knew that much – and not a whole lot else when it came to the politics of reproducetive health. Because I was lucky enough to be nearly 12 years older than my kid brother, I knew a thing or two about babies as well – but it was the sheer responsibility that has knocked the wind right out of me.
Because I’m not a big sister now. I’m a mother. I’m Head Bitch In Charge, to borrow a phrase. For now, Lev’s father and I are his world, and me more so, because I’m the one with the tasty, tasty milk.
It can be tiring and demoralizing and fun and awesome. It’s also difficult to deal with it while still dealing with the aftermath of childbirth.
The physical consequences, for me, are mostly OK – there’s nothing too terrifying about it, if it goes according to plan! Sure, I had some stitches and I’m still using pads (you basically have a really long period after you give birth), but I can still laugh about it (“Mommy needs to change her diaper and then she’ll change yours”) – it’s the emotional aftermath that has sucked. Any news of children getting mistreated or killed can result in sobbing, for example.
None of this is extraordinary. Millions of people go through it. They go through it in refugee camps and warzones just as frequently as they go through it in the leafy, crowded neighbourhoods of eastern Moscow. Nobody will give you a medal for going through with it either. And that’s normal too.
As feminists, we’re sick to death of the image of the self-sacrificial woman, yet being a feminist mother obviously means having to reconcile this fact with making certain sacrifices.
It also means reconciling vulnerability with fearlessness – because the kid depends on you! You must do things on the kid’s behalf, and try to screw up as little as possible. Nobody else will do it for you – and you’re lucky if you’ve got a partner to help see it all through.
And you have also got to remain you. I’ve always been shallow and frivolous, for example, and won’t let go of those qualities without a fight. The first time I went out on my own after Lev was born – just a trip to the pharmacy and the grocery store – a pair of taxi drivers parked by the sidewalk made comments about my newly large breasts.
I came home elated. “I’m a sex object again!!!” I told my husband triumphantly. He told me that it was why he married me in the first place. Then we tried to eat while Lev started bawling for attention. Then it was suddenly two a.m., and I was lying awake, staring at the ceiling, and crying – because new details had emerged about the sinking of the “Bulgaria,” on which many children had died, as well as new details of the massacre in Norway.
Lev slept next to me – wearing a onesie with sailing motifs (because his dad and I like the sea and we like to project that stuff onto our newborn). I thought about how the parents of the children in Norway must have slept all of those years ago – restlessly, waiting for a cry that may or may not signal “feeding time!” Watching the shadows cast by the night-light on their children’s faces. Feeling their children’s tiny fingers grip theirs by reflex alone.
The other thing about being a feminist is this – you become one, because you realize that the world is kinda scary. There’s a lot of injustice in it, a lot of horror. Deciding to bring a kid into all that – well, it can be horrifying in and of itself. But you do it anyway – in my case, you do it because you are in love, and because you have hope.
And because big tits look good on you, of course.
P.S. In spite of being somewhat place-bound, I do hope to end up on a Crimean beach soon, together with Lev and the Man. I’ll tell you guys if we reach our sacred goal.