So there I was in my office NOT writing my book and looking at Facebook even though I swore I wouldn't. And I stumbled upon this Paris Review essay, and I fell in love with every word. Take a second, won't you, and read it: "The Baby, the Book, and the Bathwater" by Heather Abel.
Wow, right? Like, OH MY GOD wow.
Abel brilliantly explains what the hell is wrong with me.
I have been feeling so diminished lately, sitting in my office and watching pictures of my children flutter off the walls, landing gummy side up on my desk and credenza and floor. I remember being a young person and feeling so full of potential-- like the whole world was waiting for me, because it was. I mean, naturally, as we get older and grow up and choose which parts of the waiting world we actually will take and which we'll leave to wait for ourselves to claim them in another life, we become more defined by our telos than our potential, our being, not our becoming. This is just part of adulting, of easing into your actual self, not your rhetorical one. But I have wondered for awhile if my becoming isn't truncated by mothering in a way I never could have predicted before I strapped that first baby to my chest and gave in to an overwhelming need to never hear the tenure clock tick.
Do I read so much because it's easier than writing?
Do I want to have another baby because it will be a downy little suckling pig of an excuse to settle here in what I have become?
Do I not write my book because mothering is always already filling the hours?
Mothering will do that, you know. It will be as big as you let it become, take up as much space as you offer, settle into all of the cracks, even the ones you didn't notice.
Paid work is my priority, of course, my real job and then my adjunct one. But then, right after that, I should be giving all of my extra thoughts and minutes to my book, to the life of the mind I have always wanted and thought was as good as destined. Instead, the thoughts and minutes go to mothering in ways that aren't always helpful because I give them resentfully even as they save me from failure's potential. You can't fail to get your book published if you never write the book, right? So I am using mothering to justify procrastination, but I want to write my book so badly I am miserly with my mothering minutes even though I spend so many of them.
Why make your kid a sandwich when you can make them the exact sandwich their American Girl dolls have? Even if it means you have to go through your storage room to find your butterfly cookie cutter and add a solid 7 minutes to your lunch time routine?
Let me be clear: I am not really talking about my individual choice to make my kid a fancy sammie-- this is about collective worldview, not individual actions. I am talking about socially agreed upon notions of living the good life that even include sandwich art as a thing that someone who takes care of a small kid might get it in their head to make.
Abel does such a nice job of exposing the moral hegemony that ideologies of intensive mothering create. It's hard to do this-- to have the critical distance necessary to call out the worldview we're looking through. Baby wearing, breastfeeding, being with your baby 24/7-- I love all of these things, have rearranged my life to make sure there's room for them, but I think I have given them too much space, gotten the proportions wrong. Now that my babies aren't babies, now that they don't need my body to sustain them, I need to rethink my relationship to mothering. I need to parent like a dad, what would surely be a "joyous act of drag."
Every semester I teach Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Solitude of Self," the speech from 1892 where she articulated a feminist rationale for the rights of women qua women. And every semester, the speech makes me cry. I could never quite put my finger on why, but I think Abel did. We learn from so many places that it's not okay to be ourselves alone. We are ourselves first in relation to the people we work to sustain. Even still, Even today. Even with all of the things Stanton wanted us to have-- citizenship rights and education and the means to "to manage a household, have a desirable influence in society, keep her friends and the affections of her husband."
It's been bothering me for awhile, this idea that I feel obligated to be extra mother-y all the time-- how much of it am I taking on because I am avoiding getting my heart broken by not living my dream? How much of it do I take on because I have been gulping the intensive mothering Kool-Aid?