What Motherhood Isn’t


I’m a few years into this motherhood thing now – long enough to have some thoughts about what motherhood is. Turns out it is difficult. More so than I thought it would be. It’s relentless, confusing, and isolating. It’s exhausting to the marrow. It empties me of all I have and then empties me some more, forcing me to scrape at the bedrock of my endurance and find what I didn’t know was there to give. Motherhood is helpless. My heart on wobbly legs navigating stairs. I get it. This is why we honor moms. They’ve earned it.

It’s also, in my experience, multiple daily dopamine hits. It’s wonder. It’s encountering the world all over again. It’s being the very first Most Important Person in someone’s life. It’s the quickening in an infant’s eyes at the sound of my voice and the dirt-stained tears on my chest from a preschooler’s cheek. Because that particular spot on my chest, the spot with the sun-damage mole that he loves, is his home. His safest place. It’s being trusted beyond what I’ve earned. It’s being loved simply and forgiven instantly (my kids aren’t teenagers yet). It is sheer privilege.

On Mother’s Day, I feel like we hear a great deal about the struggle and sacrifice of motherhood, and we even hear some about the privilege. But we hear almost nothing about the socially privileged position of motherhood. We live in a society where motherhood is the norm for women, and any woman of a certain age who isn’t a mother is reminded of her noncompliance with this norm in a thousand different ways. Some of them are subtle; some are astoundingly obtuse. Mother’s Day happens to be a day when her noncompliance with the norm is rubbed vigorously in her face. This is why, every year, I like to hold a little bit of space on this day for what motherhood isn’t.

Motherhood is not automatic. About sixty percent of us can schedule babies between vacations and waxing appointments, but one in eight of us will for some period of her life be suspended between a desire to become a mother and an excruciating uncertainty as to when or if that will happen. This can last for years or decades. It can last for a lifetime.

Motherhood is not always visible. About ten to twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. About one in one hundred pregnancies ends in a stillbirth. Some mothers lose their children when they are older. Still others have had to give their children up. I promise you that you know women who have carried children in their wombs but do not hold them in their arms. You don’t necessarily know who we are. We don’t slap a bumper sticker on our car for each loss, and we might not stand when they’re handing out flowers to the moms in church. But we are mothers. And we will always carry those children.

Motherhood is not biology. Shoutout to all the adoptive mothers who constantly field questions about their child’s “real” mom. (Let’s just stop it, shall we?) And to all the nurturing and fierce women (and men) out there who are guiding people through the world, regardless of who bore them. I have been mothered by many people, some of them infertile peers, some of them women with kids, one of them a quirky Argentine lady, and, yes, one who gave birth to me. I am thankful for all of them.

Motherhood is not a requirement. It’s hard enough to be a woman in the world without being constantly fed the bullshit that we have not completed our life cycle until we have spawned. While it really seems like at this point I shouldn’t have to say that a woman is a complete human of her own right, I’m going to say it, just in case: no woman owes the world children. Full stop.

Motherhood is not yo’ damn business. I’m just going to posit a mad theory here: let us suppose for a moment that a woman is capable of communicating her reproductive plans with all of the people in her life who need to know – say, her partner (if applicable), her doctor, her inner circle. Are you with me, here? Do we think women are capable of doing that? Great. It logically follows, then, that if a woman has not told you her reproductive plans, then you are not a person who needs to know. Crazy, huh? I encourage you to ask yourself, the next time you want to ask a woman if or when she is planning to have children, “Does this woman owe me this information?” (Hint: the answer is no.) If the answer is no, then go ahead and ask her something less loaded, like how much she weighs.

Motherhood is not womanhood. I was not a mother, and now I am. Guess what? I’m the same person. I have not unlocked secret levels of humanhood. I did not grow lady parts I didn’t have before. I did not suddenly access emotions of which I was heretofore incapable. Can we please stop belittling the life experience of women who do not have children? There are precisely as many ways of being a woman in the world as there are women in it. If we spent less time measuring each other and more time honoring each other, we’d all be stronger for it.

Today, by all means, let us celebrate mothers. But let us expand our idea of what motherhood is, and please, let us remember what it isn’t.

Getting Work Done

I’m contemplating getting work done. I know.

It started innocently enough. I spent one too many days of my recent Sunshine Coast getaway leaping from deck chair to kayak with dangerous alacrity on account of my bump-festooned lady garden. I know better than to shave down there, but seriously, who are the people who have time to wax every time they’re going to put on a swimsuit? I had just gotten myself and my son out of a kayak and onto a dock when an older gentleman from a neighboring cottage approached to help me pull the craft in. Was I thinking about my child’s safety? Yes. Obviously. Was I thinking about not letting the kayak drift out to sea? Also, yes. But I was simultaneously looking around for a pair of shorts to throw on as quickly as possible (because, clearly, the man’s first order of business was going to be to take a gander at my crotchal area and get weirded out). It was with one leg through my shorts and one arm around my kid that I told myself, You’re pushing 40. You don’t have time for this shit. As soon as I got home, I googled “Best Laser Hair Removal.”

I found a top-rated place, and started reading the reviews. Unlike many places that perform this service, this one specialized in more extensive cosmetic procedures. Most of the reviews were not for their hair removal services but for Botox and fillers. I’d heard about lip fillers before, but, as people seem to be quite comfortable with posting their own before-and-after photos along with their reviews, I saw that many people had gotten under-eye fillers. As in, get-rid-of-your-bags-and-dark-circles-fillers.

Since switching to the revised sleeping schedule that follows giving birth, I’ve had permanent, ash-coloured, pits below my eyes. I, who once wore makeup only to weddings, have now become a person who does not leave the house without a generous application of foundation and concealer, primarily because I want to look like I am still living. I also sometimes wear makeup around the house, lest I slip into a coma from walking too close to a mirror.

The sudden realization that someone could inject something under my eyes to make me look all rested and perky danced before me like a desert oasis. I found myself contemplating it, despite the fact that I have long considered Getting Work Done to be solely the territory of insecure starlets and desperate housewives – and despite the fact that the injections generally seem to shut down the part of the brain that lets you know when to stop.

I casually broached the topic with my husband: “What would you think if I got some injections under my eyes to fill in these dark circles?”

“Wouldn’t sleeping also do that?”

“It’s never gonna happen.”

He nodded, ceding the point.

“But what if you get a freaky frozen face?”

“It’s not Botox. It’s just replacing the fat that I’m losing in my face.” But even as I said that, I was thinking, While they’re in there, they may as well Botox those weird wrinkles I have under my eyes. Oh crap! This is how Lindsay Lohan started! I was brought back to the present by my husband’s voice.

“They’re going to inject fat under your eyes? Whose?”

Good question. “I think it’s synthetic.”

He sighed and then looked at me.

“You do realize this is only going to get worse. We are aging.”

It was true. What was I thinking? I would not bow to the demands of a youth-obsessed society. I would not rail in futility against time’s inevitable onslaught. I would accept the coming of age with grace and dignity. I would be an Audrey Hepburn, to use the immortal words of Liz Lemon, not a Madonna. I dropped the subject and just made an appointment to talk to someone about the lasering. (Having a permanently tidy undercarriage was somehow a much easier sell.)

I went with the intense place that had all the rave reviews – partly on account of the reviews, and partly because it looked expensive. Firing lasers at one’s vulva, I reasoned, seemed the sort of thing one should not do on the cheap.

Deciding not to waste precious and rare moments involving a babysitter for a laser consultation, I brought my 2-year-old son along. A sandwich board was sitting out in front of the place, promising that they could make me look and feel better. There were images of pretty people on it, smiling broadly with perfect teeth. I felt a little sick.

I approached the door to find before-and-after pictures of a woman’s face that had been treated for sun spots. I paused. They can FIX those…? Oh Dear God. I am Donatella Versace. NO. I forced my gaze upward and pushed open the door.

Having decided approximately two and a half seconds prior that I would not descend the slippery slope of skin alterations, I entered with a certain aloofness. The room was spartan and immaculate, and the receptionist was a flawless representation of the current standards of physical beauty. A TV was showing an episode of The Doctors wherein Ken dolls in white coats were touting some sort of treatment (presumably offered here) whereby ugly people are made acceptable. My son looked at it, and I felt sick again.

Next to me sat a man who looked like he’d spent a fair amount of time there, and I don’t think it had made him feel better yet. He smiled at me a bit shyly. I smiled back, blushing somewhat, like I’d just bumped into my neighbor while we were both buying sex toys. I glanced around, sizing up people as they came and went, wondering what they were in for, wondering if they were wondering what I was in for. Probably those hideous dark circles, they all thought.

A nice-looking young man came out to the lobby, and a quick glance at his arms indicated to me that he was there for the same reason I was (albeit, I imagined, for a different body parts), so I glanced up at the technician who accompanied him.

She was young and svelte, with raven hair, alabaster skin, and pillowy lips. Either she had won the genetic lottery, or they really did fantastic work here. I decided it was an 80-20 split, and stood up and smiled as she glanced down at her chart and said my name.

She took my medical form from the flawless receptionist and ushered me back to her office. I settled in with my toddler squirming in my lap. She gave him a quick smile and began to ask the standard questions. Then she stopped, stared at my form, and forced herself to continue before stopping short again. “I’m sorry,” she said finally, “This is so unprofessional. But I can’t help but notice that you’ve had a laparoscopy.” Her voice tightened, “I’m having one in two days.”

She was still composed, smiling, but in that tightness I heard all the fear I felt seven years ago upon being told that I would have one tube stuck through my belly button and another just above my pubic bone to probe all my internal organs looking for a disease that I may or may not have. A disease that may or may not make me unable to have a baby.

“It’s no big deal!” I said quickly. “They put you under, and you wake up, and it’s done. They do pump your abdomen full of gas, which, weirdly, hurts your shoulders, but other than that, I have very little memory of the recovery – that’s a good thing.”

She looked relieved, but also like she wanted to say more.

I ventured, “If you don’t mind my asking, what is it for?” Then I quickly added, “You totally don’t have to answer.”

She hesitated, then told me. Suddenly, we were plunged into the kind of conversation you rarely have even with close friends. In muted tones and short sentences, we spoke of fear. Of longing. Of pain. Of sex. Of the isolation and deep loneliness of being completely misunderstood by everyone who is supposed to understand.

She glanced at my son, who had long since left the confines of my lap and was across the room getting way too excited about a doorstop. “I see that you…”

I told her it took a long time. That the laparoscopy helped me with the pain but not fertility. That IVF didn’t work. That nothing worked. That just after being told that there wasn’t anything else medicine could do for us, we got pregnant naturally – “spontaneously,” as they say in the biz. Part of me hated saying it to her, because I know how it feels to hear those miracle stories – everybody has a friend of a friend who got pregnant after starting the adoption process, or giving up, or learning how to relax. You learn to hate those people. But here was my son, wandering around her office, and there is no addressing his existence without acknowledging that it is the kind of miracle, fairy tale ending that everyone in this club longs for.

I shifted topics and asked, “Has anyone joked about having fun trying yet?”

Her eyes rolled to the heavens, and her perfect brow descended to her desk with a dull thud. She looked up, “My mother actually told me that this is great birth control.”

I grimaced. She took a deep breath, “I don’t want birth control.” And then she almost whispered, but it carried all the anguish and desperation of a scream, “I just want a baby.”

My eyes brimmed, because I know that scream so well. And I just wanted to take her in my arms and whisper, “Courage, dear heart.” But we were still in an office, and she still had to talk to me about lasering my hooha.

She did, briefly, and she answered all my hooha laser-related questions. As we left her office, she paused to kick the doorstop. It was a noisy doorstop (the very best kind). The boy’s eyes widened with wonder. I took his dimpled hand and led him toward the lobby.

Before I turned to leave, I said, “Good luck,” and I did my best to infuse the words with a strong hug. The TV was still flickering in that most plastic of places where I had just had the most human of encounters. I passed the flawless receptionist, who smiled at me. It suddenly occurred to me that she, also, likely had a soul. As did hairy arms guy, and sheepish frequent customer guy, and perhaps even Donatella Versace. And, perhaps, even my own self, who may or may not end up getting work done. And who the hell cares either way.