A few months ago, a dear friend and her husband visited my husband, children and me in New York City. We met them for a lunch of lobster rolls on the Upper East Side. After hugs and cheek kisses, we asked how each other were. My husband said, “We’re good!” just as I said at the same time, “we’re hanging in there.” My friend laughed knowingly, of how it’s tiring with a new baby (even if we are all sleeping through the night), while the men understand that for months after giving birth, women are tired, without really knowing just how tired we are. Our husbands played chase with my son. My son instantly claims any kind man as his play gym, even if the last time he saw the man was when he was baby. My friend took the baby from me, as I threw our coats, hats and gloves over my son’s stroller.
My friend took the natural segue of our greeting and began telling me her three worst moments of motherhood. Often the worst moments, people say, are the ones that make you laugh when you look back at them. Nonetheless, my friend still had a moment – when she kicked her 8 year old out of a car on a city street and made him walk the rest of the rest way home after he called her names – when she caught herself thinking, “Crap. This just became a Social Services issue.” She then stopped the conversation and asked, “Why am I telling you this?”
I was listening rapt, as if she had been telling me about her personal encounter with aliens that landed in her yard.
“Because no one talks about these things,” I answered. I had just thrown my first temper tantrum in front of my son that week. I had just had my first experience of wondering if I had crossed into Social Services territory. I had just had my first realization that there is a whole other world of parenting that people don’t talk about. Or at least I don’t hear them talking about this underbelly of parenting - the days we think about sending ourselves to the looney bin, the days we don't want our children to crawl into our laps because we're tired of them touching us, the days our children disappoint us, but we don't say so because we think we're supposed to be accepting and free from expectations.
My friend's son walked home. And now, when someone in the car puts down his mother, he says, “We are too far from home for you to be talking like that to her.”
My son survived my temper tantrum too, and now greets my exasperated groans with, “You’re frustrated, Mom?”
This week, I was talking with my neighbor who, like me, is adjusting to life with two children. Her second child is three months old. We wondered at how some parents sail through the adjustment, while we found it so exhausting and so much work.
She then said, “I don’t enjoy motherhood as much as I thought I would.” She looked at me, “I know. I’m not supposed to say those things.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Not all of motherhood is enjoyable.”
But I know why we don’t usually say these kinds of things. When I’ve mentioned in conversations our adjustment growing pains, I’ve been advised to just take better vitamins. I’ve been on the receiving end of that stern matronly that says: “Woman! Make an effort!” I’ve been told that if I had my own interests, it’d be easier (I swear.). I’ve been asked if I had Post-Partum Depression.
No, I said, but thanks for the reminder that the thinking of the Victorian era is still with us, that if a woman finds mothering hard, she must be sick.*
I’ve also received notes from friends wondering how to stay on top of it all, or if they made a mistake in having children, or friends who love their careers, but find their children drive them crazy simply because they are worn out from work. They have it all, but if they admit their exhaustion, some one tells them to quit complaining. There’s a recession.
It’s had me think, if motherhood is so hard, why is it so taken for granted? Why is it so undervalued? Why are women feeling guilty and isolated for not loving it as much as they think they should? Social Services exists for a reason, but should we fear its existence on our bad days? And why are women such harsh judges of each other, when we do open up about the raw, ugly, and authentic moments of parenting? What are mothers not saying about mothering?
*Please don’t get me wrong: I greatly appreciate that women can talk about having Post-Partum Depression openly and we can know it strikes any one from Gwyneth Paltrow to the young woman in the Walt Whitman Projects who threw her baby down the trash chute. Being able to talk about it makes a difference for women, their partners (especially now that we know men can also suffer from Post-Partum Depression), and their children, and we’re also now dealing with a kind of backlash – that if we take too long to recover from giving birth, or have too many hard days or what have you, we must be depressed. Rough spots don’t necessarily mean illness.