Posted in: Motherhood & Custody
Published on May 08, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler
Mother's Day - What Becoming a Mother Can Mean to a Woman
It's Mother's Day again, perhaps the only day of the year on which mothers are treated like the Queens they truly are.
Excited young children serve them breakfast in bed, older children take them out for lunch, husbands or partners give them gifts of flowers, jewelry or even iPads.
But, as my mother of blessed memory used to ask: "Why do this only one day a year? What's wrong with every day, or even every week?"
It's a fair enough question given how important mothers are to each of us personally and in terms of the crucial roles they play in continuing the human race and in creating homes for families.
Female motherhood is both a sacred undertaking and a sacred experience. Becoming a mother—giving birth to or raising another precious human being—changes you as nothing else can. You are pitched, head-long and feet-first into a parallel universe, a new way of life, a craft, a passion which tempers and deepens all those who engage in it.
For example, before I became a mother, my ego knew no bounds. I thought I could overcome all obstacles through force of will, not by bending to circumstance, or trusting in forces larger than myself. Becoming a newborn mother changed my life. It humbled me, slowed me down, made me kinder, and infinitely more vulnerable to cruelty. Mothering a child is an incomparable rite of passage.
As I lifted up the unbearable lightness of one small life, I felt like Atlas holding the world on her shoulders. I had to trust that I would keep my balance, even when I was losing it. Just as I was not needed during labor, I began to understand that there are forces at work in the universe beyond human consciousness.
Yes, divine forces held me aloft and saw me safely through labor. This indeed was a task in which I had many partners: Nature, God, and my child's father who was with me during labor.
I learned that life does not stand still, that it is always changing, growing, dying, being renewed. For years, when I had looked in the mirror, I always looked the "same" to myself. Time became real for me when I began to measure it by my son's obvious, visible growth. Time became more finite.
I comprehended, in my body, that one day I would die.
For a long time after I gave birth, when I met people, I'd visualize their being born, or giving birth. I was newly, and deeply, in touch with the sacred origin of every human being. Thus, I was even less impressed by outward pomp, by uniforms of any sort. All the emperors were naked...newborns. This vivid, visual appreciation of human connectedness did not last forever, but from time to time it returns, and when it does, I recognize it.
Why did I choose to become a mother? I had been a university professor for nearly a decade and had already published two books. I was about to publish a third book when my husband and I carefully, purposely, chose to become pregnant.
Perhaps, like most women, I, too, yearned for my mother's love and approval—and in its perceived absence, gravitated towards having a child—as if only a child could meet a grown woman's longings for union and intimacy, and satisfy a daughter's obligation to honor her mother by becoming a mother herself. Did I think that only by having a child would I become "whole," that a child would always be in my life until death do us part?
I was a writer, used to spending long hours every day alone and in silence. I was not sure I could change or adjust to the frequent interruptions that an infant and child would require. Would I stop writing?
Indeed, "Mother-writers," (the phrase is writer Tillie Olsen's), have, in the past, usually been condemned to long periods of "silence." Instead of writing, they did the washing, darned socks, mended dresses, vegetable gardened, cooked, preserved, baby-tended, child-tended, husband-tended, entertained, attended church. They also gave birth to more children. I often wonder if Sylvia Plath might have lived a bit longer if only she'd had a live-in baby-sitter that last cold winter in London, or a husband willing to become the Angel in the House so that his wife, the great poet, could compose undisturbed.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had no room of her own, she lived for others: six children and a family. Thus, Stowe could only write sporadically, in between her endless other tasks. Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Rebecca Harding Davis, Stowe, too, finally had a "breakdown." I would too—wouldn't you—if you wanted to write a book that would "make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is," but your domestic duties would not allow you to get to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for nearly fifteen years?
I was lucky. I was never "silenced." But my subject definitely changed. How could I not write about motherhood? I wrote about it in at least three books: "With Child: A Diary of Motherhood" (1979), "Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody" (1986), and "Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M" (1988). A 25th anniversary edition with eight new chapters of "Mothers on Trial" will be out this summer.
I am glad we celebrate Mothers Day. Father's Day is another, equally deserving holiday. Let's recognize both parents more than once a year. They are the only parents we will ever have.
And, as they say, the reward for having a child is that one day, you might have a grandchild which is, as they also say, "the prize." As the grandmother of a feisty and utterly charming one year old granddaughter, I can tell you that this is true.
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