I joined a group of mother writers in the month of October for an online class called “Writing and/as the Mother.” We read excerpts about motherhood in literary works, and generated our own reflections on mothering in words. (You can listen to some of our creations here). On Fridays, we would Zoom together and discuss what had come up for us in the writing. At one point in an early conversation, we were talking about how we could consider caregiving as art, ala Mary Kelly and her Post-Partum Document. We listed an account of our days, made inventories of our anxieties, examined the exhaustiveness of motherhood and why it is this all-encompassing tidal wave of work that tends to steal our art. The answer was obvious. There was no space in our lives for creation anymore. There was no quiet in which to nurture the seed.
Inevitably the discussion turned to what happens when we feel overextended, when we have nothing left to give and yet…the children still require more from us, and the list of undone tasks remains long. One mother talked about the rage that erupted after a long day and a rejected dinner. Another mother who is raising two children on her own, recently separated from her wife, mentioned how tired she was by the unendingness of the job. She said, “When I feel that I am at the end of my rope, somehow more rope always appears. And that’s great…but it’s also terrifying.”
Some mothers nodded in their small squares. But I didn’t want to assent. It felt wrong deep in my bones. What if there wasn’t always more rope available ? What if that was a lie? A belief the patriarchy has instilled in women to keep us tirelessly bent over the proverbial stove?
In early 2020, I read the novel Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. It is an unusual novel, encompassing three points of view: a father, a mother, and a friend of the father’s. In the book, the mother, Rachel, ghosts her own life. Quits showing up at work where she is a successful talent agent. Drops her children off at their father’s and doesn’t come back. She disappears, and her ex-husband has no idea where to find her.
The book can be hard to get through, as you must suffer through the first part which is told from husband Toby’s point of view. He isn’t the most likeable character. But then finally you get Rachel’s perspective. You find out what has truly happened. You witness how she lost herself in motherhood, and was desperate to reclaim her life but didn’t know how.
Toby went back to work six weeks after Hannah was born, but Rachel didn’t. At six weeks, she’d wait for Mona to take Hannah on her walk and then would go into the living room, where at eleven A.M. a ray of sunlight streamed through the window, and she would sit in the warm spot, first on her knees, and then she would bend over like a Muslim in prayer and stay there and cry. How could it be, she wondered. How could it be that the simple act of having a child did this to you? Had every birth in the world ruined every woman in the world? Was this a secret they’d been keeping, or had she just not been listening? Underneath all the vacuous, cruel wisdom the women who saw her in her late stages of pregnancy imparted to her, most of which had to do with banking sleep or measuring every precious moment because it all goes so fast, were they really telling her to mark her personhood?
The other women in her prenatal yoga class had kept up an email chain, and in their messages, she tried to discern that they, too, were terrified and violated and sad and broken, but they weren’t. Trust her, they just weren’t. They made jokes about how they were tired and it was a tragedy that one of them had had an epidural and it was a tragedy that one of them couldn’t produce enough milk for her baby and had to supplement with formula. She wanted to write back to tell them she couldn’t look in the mirror at herself. She wanted someone to understand how small she was now. She wanted to ask one of them if this was the real her - if the real her had been revealed to her suddenly that day in the hospital, or if she would somehow bounce back. Bouncing back was a language they understood: their vaginas needed to bounce back, their breasts needed to bounce back, would their abdomens ever bounce back. With a few small adjustments, these women would acclimate to life. They would recognize themselves. But would Rachel? Would Rachel bounce back? The entire phrase “bouncing back” seemed to her like it existed to make fun of her. There was no bouncing. There was no back.
Rachel eventually returns to work full-time, becomes the primary breadwinner though her husband Toby is a doctor, yet she is the one who manages the nanny, makes the decisions about the children’s schedules, tries to make the right connections and friendships with the right mothers in her social circle in the Upper East Side. It all becomes too much for her. And one day, she has the bravery? moxie? gumption? to admit that she just can’t take it anymore.
I’m not saying we all should ghost our own lives, even though I’m sure every mother has been tempted to at times. But I’m grateful to the author who dared to paint a portrait of motherhood we don’t always see. As Olivia Campbell writes in her review of another novel that dares to change the conversation about motherhood, Nightbitch, “According to the prevailing message of our culture, to express dissatisfaction as a mother is to be ungrateful. To want more is monstrous.”
I wish we would stop insisting that mothers have an endless supply of tolerance, that they can keep going indefinitely. There is not always more rope. We shouldn’t have to apologize for being human. Perhaps this is the origin of our rage. The expectation of our infinite ability to take on more.
This is what buried mothers during the pandemic. To expect us to mother and work and teach and clean and cook and do all the things under the umbrella of anxiety that covered our entire world was untenable. We collapsed under the weight. Our brokenness erupted in screams of frustration. At anger at the world that still, as always, expected us to pick up the slack.
I understand where the illusion of our unending fortitude comes from. To become a mother is to do the impossible. Labor, though spun as the most natural thing in the world, your body was made to do this a refrain even as we writhe in excruciating pain, is also freakishly unnatural. To birth a child from a part of you that is usually the size of a walnut is a deeply disturbing endeavor. And yet somehow, we do it. We come out the other side. Perhaps this is where we learn to override our instinct that there is such a thing as “too much.” Labor was too much, but we had to face it to birth the baby. So maybe our feelings of finitude are also something to overcome.
Even after childbirth, we keep telling mothers that they can do more, that this is the job, that others have done it, it is part of the initiation. The constant feeding and burping and rocking. No more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. Though you become a zombie in those initial weeks of parenthood, it is presented as normal. Every mother gets through it. It won’t last forever. These messages make us think that to reach the end of our rope is wrong. It means our failure. It signals that we were not cut out for this. So we deny it, don’t dare ask for help.
But there is a limit to how much we can take. We are only human. Humans are not robots. Humans are not machines. Humans get tired, get angry, become dissatisfied. Yet we rarely allow these feelings in mothers. Mothers must always keep going.
Maggie Nelson writes about the concept of Maternal Finitude in her brilliant book, The Argonauts.
“According to Kaja Silverman, the turn to a paternal God comes on the heels of the child’s recognition that the mother cannot protect against all harms, that her milk - be it literal or figurative - doesn’t solve all problems. As the human mother proves herself a separate, finite entity, she disappoints, and gravely...Most children respond to the partial satisfaction of their demands with extreme rage, rage that is predicated on the belief that the mother is withholding something that is within her power to provide…Silverman does imagine, however, that this cycle could or should change. ‘Our culture should support [the mother] by providing enabling representations of maternal finitude but instead it keeps alive in all of us the tacit belief that [the mother] could satisfy our desires if she really wanted to.’”
You witness the roots of this belief system in the on-demand breastfeeding that the first few months of motherhood often requires. Rachel Cusk, in A Life’s Work, talks about the total absence of concern over what all this feeding means for the mother:
“You may be surprised by how hungry she is; you may find yourself feeding her twenty or thirty times in 24-hours, but don’t worry! It is impossible to overfeed a breastfed baby. This last claim suggests to me that feeding is entirely meaningless. I leaf through books on the subject looking for some mention of myself, some hint of concern for me as I sit pinned twenty to thirty times a day in my armchair, but there is none.”
Inherent in the initiation into motherhood is the message that we are to be endlessly available. We are expected to provide. We are expected to keep it up, do without, take one for the team. It is supposedly only for a while, a season, really. But once we learn to always put others first, once we learn to override our body and soul saying it needs a break, we forget how to live any other way.
We must reacquaint ourselves with our ability to say we’ve had enough. That we are spent, we are empty, it is time to be refilled.
When we consistently deny our own needs (for a break, for a snack, for some fun), we have abandoned ourselves. And that is not healthy for anyone, least of all our children. The idea that we must disappear in order for our children to thrive is destructive, to us and to them. We are modeling what motherhood looks like.
But we can break the pattern. We can claim maternal finitude. We can recognize that child rearing didn’t use to be so all-encompassing. It also didn’t use to be done alone. We once had villages, other people to depend on - fellow moms, grandparents, aunts, neighbors, godparents.
What if asking for help and recognizing your limits was not a sign of weakness but a sign of bravery?
“Refusal, like so much else, turns out to be the prerogative of men,” writes Claire Dederer in her Atlantic book review of Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts titled “The Power of Refusal.” “Cusk and Lahiri know that motherhood and domesticity will eat you alive. They don’t know how to fix that, but their narrators know that a woman who wishes to be free has to not do a lot of things.”
A woman who wishes to be free has to NOT do a lot of things. I love that line. What things do you take on that are unnecessary? What could you let go of that would create more space for you? How could you own the power of refusal in a way that permits you to craft a life that resembles the one you dream of? “Cusk’s M has come to resist the demands of upkeep, of caretaking: ‘the feeling that my life has entailed too many practical tasks, so that if I add even one more to the total, the balance will be tipped and I will have to admit I have failed to live as I have always wished to.”
If we never say no, to our children, to our spouses, to our families, to our workplaces, to the PTA, we too, will fail to live as we have always wished to. There are limits to what we can take on. We don’t need to apologize for the end of our rope. We are allowed to take a break. But to do this we must believe we are worthy. We must believe that to pour effort and time into ourselves is not selfish but is, in fact, necessary.
It could also, perhaps, be revolutionary.
“You are complicit in your own oppression when you willingly put yourself and your time second or last.”--Eve Rodsky
Stop Telling Women’s They’re Amazing by Claire Trageser
Drop the Ball: Achieve More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu
Mothers as Makers of Death by Claudia Dey