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Hello Young Mothers, Wherever You Are

April 28, 2009 by · No comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: celesteh

I’ve been thinking about mothers, and I should note straight away that my thoughts were originally coincidental to the fact that this month we will celebrate their unconditional love (thanks in large part to the flower and greeting card industries.)

The reason I found myself ruminating on mothers and motherhood is that I had occasion to re-read excerpts from Adrienne Rich’s powerful, important and controversial book, Of Woman Born, published in 1976. Rich, primarily a poet, is not only a gifted writer; she is a truthteller extraordinaire. Her words brought me back to the days of my own early parenting.

Here is one of her journal entries written in 1960, when she was the mother of three small sons: “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment…and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself…a monster of selfishness and intolerance. … [I am filled] with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted.” Later that year she wrote, “I love them. But it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.”

What woman, before Rich, dared to whisper such thoughts about the one role society had sanctioned for her? Who among us had the courage to reveal, even to ourselves, that we often felt smothered by motherhood, stifled and inadequate in the face of what we had taken on, bored by the nullifying routine of it all – even as we clasped our beloved babies to our breast?

Rich spoke for so many of us as we struggled, silent and guilt-ridden, with our conflicts over the prescribed roles of womanhood versus our hunger for intellectual pursuit, artistry, autonomy, a sense of self – all issues we could not name amidst the longings, for which we felt “monstrous” because we had no language, no analysis, no insight with which we might have gained wider cultural recognition and acceptance.

When I became a mother myself in the 1970s I had not yet discovered Adrienne Rich. I didn’t know why I felt so angry and impatient, so inept and exhausted, so frustrated and constrained – indeed, so monstrous, much of the time. I had wanted nothing so much as marriage and motherhood, and yet, rather than rendering me blissfully happy, I was hopelessly short-tempered and depressed. There were many women who felt as I did (although there were those who didn’t) but we dared not speak our confusion and despair for fear of being labeled – monstrous.

I hasten to add that it was not all bleak. I loved my children ferociously, as I do now. I knew no greater pleasure than to suckle them, to lift them sleepy-warm from their cribs, to watch their eyes track me, to see them smile with delight. I adored their clever questions as they grew, wept when they made me proud, missed them desperately when we were apart. But until they grew into independence, I was never free of the myriad feelings to which Rich gave words; words that validated and comforted me, words that made me feel less guilty and yes, less monstrous.

The point is this: No one tells you how hard mothering is. No one tells you that you will not always like your children, or yourself as a mother. No one says to you, “It’s okay. I felt that way too. You are not a monster!” No one says, “You’re a person too. It’s alright to long for more.”

Once, when her baby was small, a friend of mine went to the pediatrician. He said, “And how is mom doing?” She burst into uncontrollable sobs. “No one has asked me that since he was born!” she wept.

My children are grown now and able to understand all that I have written here. How I wish they could have understood then, when my needs and theirs so often clashed. How I wish there had been a way, as Adrienne Rich said, “to make explicit only the caring.” Nevermind. We have all survived our traumas. And I am no longer only mother; now I am friend as well.

I am compelled, as I reflect upon this, to “go public” – with all the temerity Rich must have felt when she dared to so eloquently write seemingly monstrous words – because I cannot help but wonder how many mothers out there still need to know that “it’s okay. I felt that way too. You are not a monster!” How many young women have yet to discover Rich’s great and honest work, and to take comfort in the early years of motherhood from her words.

“Slowly I came to understand the paradox contained in ‘my’ experience of motherhood,” she wrote. “That, although different from many other women’s experiences it was not unique; and that only in shedding the illusion of my uniqueness could I hope, as a woman, to have any authentic life at all.”

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