The Paradox of Motherhood

by mraynes

*This is cross-posted over at Feminist Mormon Housewives

There have been several posts recently that have discussed how difficult it is to be a mother. There is no question that motherhood is complex, the monotony and self-sacrifice can be overwhelming. By the amount of comments and the solidarity expressed in these posts, it is evident that conversations like these are valid and needed, if only for the sanity of those participating in them. It is also clear that these women love their children fiercely. I would like to take the conversation in this direction. I feel that we should provide a place for women who feel the joy of motherhood as profoundly as they feel their feminism.

Motherhood is a sensitive subject and so I tread lightly in approaching this topic though I fear that I may be seen by some as deluded. In an effort to curtail this, I offer some basic information about me that might be helpful in putting my experience in perspective. I have only been a mother for fourteen months. My son, who we affectionately call “Baby Monster,” was an easy infant and has turned into a delightful toddler (despite the daily tantrums). I am pregnant again with a second child due in September. I may possibly be crazy, not only for having babies 20 months apart but not thinking it through well enough and being 9 months pregnant during August in Arizona. I am not a stay-at-home mother; I counsel victims of domestic violence and occasionally I lobby the Arizona legislature for better rights for DV victims. I am sure that one day I will stay at home but now is not the right time. Lastly, I have the most wonderful, feminist-minded husband who splits his time between doctoral candidate and stay-at-home daddy. I know my situation is unique and I am very blessed but I don’t feel that this disqualifies me from speaking on motherhood or maternal desire.

I don’t believe I am alone in the pleasure I feel from motherhood. Indeed, psychologist Daphne de Marneffe recently published a book entitled Maternal Desire that explores from a feminist point of view the ability of motherhood to allow us to integrate various levels of our humanity—emotional, intellectual, intuitive, physical—in a way that is truly gratifying and self-actualizing.

Women are constantly told how they should or shouldn’t mother…how they should and shouldn’t feel about mothering. The truth is, the maternal experience imbibes so many complex, and often conflicting emotions that it bears very little resemblance to the idealization we Mormons place upon motherhood. It is also unfair of some liberal feminists to denigrate the caring of children as demeaning and oppressive. Both representations are caricatures of motherhood and it is demeaning to women to believe that they would buy into either idea.

My love and affinity for being a mother took me by surprise. I expected to resent being a mother because the choice did not come without sacrifice. I gave up graduate school to become a mother. I wrote in my journal at the discovery of my pregnancy,

How have I come to this point? I am a FEMINIST! A year ago I was
unmarried, going to graduate school and moving forward. Now I am having a
baby instead of doing the things I wanted…will I even recognize the self that I
create. Maybe I will find a new self in the baby but what happens to the
self I like now?

I placed my identity on the altar of motherhood, not knowing if I would lose myself in the sacrifice. I cannot say that this was a faith-filled offering, but rather a sacrifice made out of expedience. My reward for this faithless surrender of self is best described by Reverend Canon Susan Harris in her Mother’s Day sermon. (I shamelessly stole this from Kristine’s post over at BCC. There is much more to this beautiful quote and the post is one of my favorites.)

Because He first loved us. Because Christ has risen…because while we lost
ourselves not just in sin but in duty, not just in forgetfulness but in
earnestness, in our sincere desire to do what was right for our children,
because although we lost ourselves in our mothering, God remembered us, and
brought us forward, and made us new.

I was made new by motherhood, an occurrence that I couldn’t reconcile with my feminist understanding. I have been guilty of thinking that caring for children is a trap; a throwback to 1950’s neo-Victorianism and the self-curtailment of intellect and talent. On the other hand, I absolutely reject the way we talk about motherhood in Mormonism which has become so mired in clichés about women’s nature that it is often used to guilt women into becoming the angel of the house; “enjoying” subsidized housekeeping, forsaking equality and living only for others. And yet…

And yet I crave motherhood. I delight in motherhood. My son is extraordinarily beautiful with huge blue eyes and the biggest grin you will ever see. I relish every feature, every body part. Baby Monster is independent, opinionated and passionate; a mirror of my own qualities but without the ugliness of fear and self-doubt. Of course, Monster’s independent spirit drives him to cross milestones long before I’m ready. Each one is a dagger in my mother heart, knowing that he will not and can not be my baby forever. The Baby Monster recently weaned himself, cutting off forever that warm passing of love and energy between us. I wept when I realized that my body and mother’s milk were no longer necessary for his comfort and survival. As if the embryonic cells he left behind in my body spoke to him, Monster was innately aware that his mother was grieving their separation. My son has started giving me deep hugs, then pulling my face to his, and giving me the sweetest baby mouth kisses. They fill my body and soul with the warmth and energy that used to be ours but now, are only passing. I spend my days longing for those brief moments of connection between us.

I feel the complexity of motherhood everyday, longing to be with the Baby Monster but feeling driven to my career. It is a tension that I, and all mothers have to face. There will always be tension in motherhood. In that tension there is ambivalence; there is no way to ever make the perfect choice, there are always trade offs. If mothers choose to work, there will be an indescribable ache to be the one to care and nurture their children, to feel that fusion that sustained intimacy can bring. Conversely, mothers who choose to remain in the home often long for separateness, the time to put together two rational thoughts and the satisfaction of reaching their fullest potential.

Our ability to find joy in mothering depends on our ability to meet and be sensitive to the inherent tension of motherhood. Allowing for this tension can assist in the discovery of who we really are and lead to the inhabitation of our authentic self. Motherhood is an unparalleled opportunity to experience the abounding joy of connectedness to those whom we love and sacrifice for. In the paradox of mothering, lies the truth of motherhood, that we each must be sensitive enough not only to know how best to mother our children, but also how best to mother ourselves.