Enter the Friday Fray

“What woman, in the solitary confinement of a life at home enclosed with young children, or in the struggle to mother them while providing for them single-handedly, or in the conflict of weighing her own personhood against the dogma that says she is a mother first, last, and always - what woman has not dreamed of ‘going over the edge?’” Adrienne Rich

How did you buy into the idea that there was always more rope in the early days of motherhood? I sometimes wonder whether we must tell ourselves lies in order to get through the first stage of mothering, the stage that is so constant, so soul-sapping, so literally and figuratively depleting. Are these blinders evolutionary? We filter out everything that is not focused on the continuation of our offspring. We sacrifice and spill our own blood, do without, limp along barely breathing because to demand more for ourselves feels impossible and could put the survival of the species at stake.

But there is a cost. Today I look back with sadness for my former self who was so wrapped up in what the children needed from me that I was not even in touch with my own desperation. I dissociated from my knowing, my desires, my needs so completely that I would have told you I was 100% fine. It is only now, in hindsight, as I enter the awakening, the hibernation of myself now over, that I can recognize the deep unhappiness that was just beneath the surface, obvious to all around me, but I was completely unaware of it myself. 

I posted on social media about the disturbing Modern Love column last week. In it, the author compares mothers to spawning salmon. The female salmon lays eggs and then dies on top of them so that her nutrients can feed her eggs. The author goes on to glorify this sacrifice throughout the piece, ending with this:

“This beautiful tradition of spawning is something that will stick with me….I have already died multiple times for my daughter, and I can only imagine how many times my own mother had to die for me. But I’m ready. The swim is hard, our nest is a mess, but this life I am giving my daughter - at whatever cost to my body, sanity and pride - is the best way to die.”

At first I was outraged. “When we believe mothers must die for their children, that this is in fact the purpose and call of motherhood, we will never treat mothers as the human individuals they are.” I posted. “Mothers  have a right to life apart from their children. They do not need to die over and over again. This belief is misogynistic. It will forever limit what we grant to mothers. Perhaps this thinking is even at the root of the debate going on in the Supreme Court right now.” 

But even in my outrage, I have compassion for her. She has just recently stopped breastfeeding her daughter. She is still in the early stages. Perhaps this is what she needs to believe in order to get through the difficult days. I just wish the New York Times editor could have identified that the messages within the piece weren’t universal, were not responsible, and could in fact do incredible harm.

I want there to be a different way to get through early motherhood without buying into these misogynist and patriarchal beliefs. There is a cost to denying that there is an end to the rope. Anna Quindlen controversially discussed this concept in Newsweek back in 2001 after the Andrea Yates tragedy. This struggle is not new. Yet the beliefs remain.

How might we change the narrative? How can we support new mothers so that they do not need to sacrifice themselves for the survival of the species? How could partners step in when they see this insidious disappearing happening to their own wives? How can we expunge the expectation that mothers must die for their children?

All ideas welcome.