Friday, August 23, 2013

Stumbling into Motherhood: A Few Words About Bonding & Mother-Women

(From The Way-Back Files -- Our Mothers Our Selves;  Writers and Poets Celebrate Motherhood (Bergin & Garvey 1996.)

When I came to, she was lying in my husband’s arms “We have a very pretty daughter,” Tim said, “and she has your dark eyes.”  He offered her to me; but my arms were still trembling from the anesthesia, and I knew I couldn’t hold onto her.  There was a vague gladness in me, but there was also a sense of being disconnected from this tiny, big-eyed girl-child I’d wanted so much.
The feeling lasted for a long time after Marissa’s birth.  A couple of months later, I was comparing notes with a woman from my childbirth class who’d had her baby naturally.  “Don’t you feel cheated?” she demanded.  Her daughter had been whisked away immediately to have the meconium suctioned out, and she was still gnawing over the thought that they’d missed the chance to bond at birth.
“No,” I said, and I meant it.  Still, I did ask myself sometimes if I would’ve had that strange feeling of disconnectedness had Marissa not been born Cesarean.  During my short labor, I’d experienced enough of natural childbirth to decide it was highly overrated (when my daughter’s pediatrician said he was sorry that I’d had a Cesarean, I shot back, “I’m not.”), but I couldn’t help wondering what I would have felt had we done the whole thing according to pro-natural-childbirth books.  Other then sore and exhausted, I mean.  Prior to Marissa’s birth, I’d read one of those take-back-the-birthing-process treatises and been very much swayed by it and by conversations with the friend who’d lent it to me.  Yes, I will do this without medication!  Yes, I will reach down and help pull my baby’s head out during the crowning!  Yes, Tim will cut the cord himself!  Yes, I will go and plow the field afterwards!
Well, reality — in this case, Marissa managing to get the cord snaked around her head — cut in on those imaginings.  Marissa is six months old and a happy, cuddly, opinionated baby despite the fact that we didn’t do it by that particular book or even till almost an hour after she was born.  And, as I’ve been getting to know her, I’ve had time to re-think this whole bonding business.  Truth be told, I don’t buy it.  Loving your child, I learned, like any other kind of loving, comes with time.  You love your child at first because she is your child.  But it’s still all in the abstract.  Only later, as her personality begins to emerge, do you begin to love her for who she is.
The bonding philosophy is tied up with the patriarchal notion that women must give all of themselves over to mothering the instant they conceive a child—they must become, as Kate Chopin puts it in The Awakening, “mother-women.”  It’s an insidious notion, and the people who espouse it are often the same ones who criticize working mothers and believe that women should be denied the legal right to abortion.  They are the folks who try to impress upon you the idea that raising your child is more important than anything you can ever possibly hope to do.
My response?  Yes, I believe that raising a child to be a loving, well-adjusted human being is a terribly important task; and I also believe, as Marge Piercy says in one of her poems, that every child born unloved is a bill that will come due twenty years down the line.  But I do not believe that it can or should be the entire focus of a woman’s life.  Making it so isn’t fair either to yourself or the child.  I know women — women in their early thirties like myself — who buy into this mother-women doctrine.  They channel so much of themselves into baby-making and –rearing, they’re scary.  I remember being with one such woman while I was diapering Marissa.  Marissa was wriggling around and kvetching on general principle.  My friend darted over from across the room and exclaimed, “Aha, just what I thought!”  One of the fasteners on the baby’s diapers had slipped from my fingers and stuck the baby’s hip.  My friend could tell, she said, what had happened by Marissa’s cry.  And I could tell that I’d just failed the mothering litmus test as far as she was concerned.
Since then, I have given up attempting to be the all-knowing, all-giving Earth Mother.  That, like the bonding doctrine, doesn’t work for me.  Like Chopin’s heroine, Edna, I would give up everything for my child except myself.  So I ad-lib as I go along, trying to tailor the day to meet both my needs as a person and Marissa’s.  It’s a continual balancing act, of course.  I’m learning to distinguish her lonely or “I-really-need-you-now” cry from her cranky one and to go to her when I hear it, even though I’m longing to be at my desk, working on an article or story.  Sometimes she just wants to be near me, so I take her upstairs with me and put her in the cradle alongside my desk.  I’ve done the same during phone interviews.  On the other hand, I’m also learning that when I feel really overwhelmed, the best thing for me to do is to pack Marissa in her crib for a nap and get back to my writing.  (Sometimes, I confess, I run the vacuum first to put her to sleep.)  If I can’t get even a few paragraphs in, I feel fragmented.  Lost.  And I’m no good to her then.  As Brenda Ueland observes in her book If You Want to Write—in a wonderful chapter entitled “Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for writing,” to be exact—you cannot “teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends…[without] be[ing] something yourself.  And how to be something yourself?  Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.”  Ueland takes the idea a step further.  “If you shut the door against the children for an hour a day,” she exhorts the “worn and hectored” mothers in her writing class, “and say: ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you.  They would probably all become playwrights.”
Now Marissa is, naturally, a long ways from understanding the concept of being a playwright, let alone becoming one (although judging from the long cooing conversations she carries on with her favorite stuffed animal, Gray Bunny, I think she’ll be acting out her share of stories with him and the other toys in a few years).  And I cannot shut the door against her in quite the same manner that I would be able to with an older child.  But I do think some of Ueland’s argument still holds true.  I want Marissa to be her own person, well at ease, and not an extension of me.
We have weathered the first six months—and each other—reasonably well. We may not have done things according to the childcare books or popular folklore, but we’ve discovered that we enjoy being together.  That we can laugh together over her bath.  I’m beginning to be able to read her moods, and I know that she likes music, bright colors, and cuddling with Gray Bunny & Co. in her crib.  I read to her before naps and bedtime; she doesn’t understand the words, of course, but she likes the pictures and follows the inflections of my voice till she tires.  Our best time is in the golden glow of the late summer afternoon, the last burst of sunshine stippling the old scuffed-up maple bureau, the two gray-striped toy cats in the child-sized twig chair, and the neatly turned posts of Marissa’s crib as we relax in the large, comfy gooseneck rocker with a book.  Sometimes though, I put the book aside and just hold her.  She looks at me out of those large dark blue-gray eyes which seem to change their color constantly, then turns her head to the open window, listening to the birdsong.  We sit there, outside of time, as close as it is humanly possible for two individuals to be. 


Michelle vS said...

Really nice.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Michelle. This is a much older piece, and so much has changed since I first wrote it in 1993. But I still feel that the core of it holds true.

Gwynn Rogers said...

Oh T.J. this is such a poignant piece. You describe the feelings of a brand new mother so well. My mind's eye immediately pulled up memories of bringing my daughter home. Then they had no classes... they simply handed you your child and said "have a new life." I remember thinking "Oh my God, what do I do NOW!"

I however, am one of those characters who pretty much gave up my life for my children... but I didn't know who I was then, anyway. For me, I think I grew up with my children and am a better person because of them.

I do SO LOVE your story, it brings up so many, many memories... WELL DONE!

T. J. Banks said...

Gwynn, thank you.I'm both touched and humbled by your words.
There's that old line about kids not coming with instruction manuals. Well, I think it's more a case of their coming with scripts -- but most of the pages are torn out, and we moms have to make it up as we go along.

Samantha Mozart said...

A timeless yet timely piece, T.J. Thank you for writing this. It does bring back memories of those first days and months getting to know your new child. As Gwynn commented, in those days they just said, "Here, 'have a new life,'" and I remember the "What do I do NOW?"" and getting to learn the meaning my daughter's repertoire of cries.

I agree wholeheartedly with your child-raising philosophies. It's what I did. I believe my daughter was happier and that we bonded so well because I had my own life. And, we developed and still have a circle of friends who are friends of both of us.

My mother recited nursery rhymes and read fairy tales to me from before I was born, partially why I love being a writer and storyteller. I love the imaginative and the lyrical language. Yet, when I read these same fairy tales to my daughter, her attitude was, "Yeah, right, Mom." She was too pragmatic. But, that's O.K. She provides me a different perspective on life, so I get that balance I so require.

Beautifully written.


T. J. Banks said...

Thank you, Samantha. I guess the bottom line is that none of us is ever really fully prepared for motherhood -- that we learn by going where we have to go with our children. The only thing we do know, to paraphrase another writer, is that our hearts are walking around outside ourselves and that we ain't never getting them back.

Susan Scott said...

I loved this soft and gentle piece TJ and it holds relevance for this day and time as well. What I loved about becoming a mother was the love I felt for my infant. I didn't 'know I had that love within. Yup, we wing it as we go along and somehow we get it right...
So thank you for thiis precious and poignant story, from 20'years ago.

Susan Scott said...

Where did my comment go? I'll do it again. I loved thiis gentle post TJ thank you relevant today as it was 20 years ago. I just remember being overwhelmed with love each time my sons were born and somehow we just winged it and all turned out ok.

T. J. Banks said...

Susan, I couldn't decide between your comments, so I'm printing 'em both. Thank you. I don't think I ever saw myself as much of a baby person before this, but I loved getting to know my child. I still do.