Why was I sacrificing for motherhood before I even decided I wanted children?
After working his ass off to land a job in “big law,” my husband left his firm after less than two years. He explained to a dumbfounded male partner that he felt he could not avail himself of the options open to female employees to improve work/family balance. The partner merely agreed that as a male, doing so would make it impossible to have a future at the firm.
Our infant twins were around six months old when Seth concluded that in order to be the involved, egalitarian dad we both wanted him to be, he was going to have to “lean out” of his career, and “lean in” at home. This Times piece suggests men must “lean in” at home in order for women to be able to take Sheryl Sandberg’s now famous advice to “lean in” at work. Indeed, Seth needed to make changes to his career so that mine could continue.
Seth and I were both angered and shocked at the workplace barriers that existed for him. Taking a 70% schedule, as many of the successful women in his office had, would have meant career suicide. Instead, he made the choice to leave “big law” all together, in favor of a job where he would still work extremely hard, but have more control over his hours. Along with this came a massive pay cut of almost 1/2 his salary.
As Rampell point out in the Times piece, parental leave options are dreadful in the US. But if those options that are available are, either systemically, or culturally, not options for men, that essentially forces women to “lean out” of the work world, while preventing men from “leaning in” at home.
Today, as it has for the past two days, the calendar on the wall in our house says Mama Away in blue magic marker. ”Mama go Auntie” my kids would say as I rehearsed with them that I would be leaving and when I would be returning. I never expected my newly two year-old twins to get how many days I’d be gone, or even that the blue marker means mama is away and the green means mama is here. The big takeaway was supposed to be mama WILL be back.
“Mama go Auntie” is toddler for me flying to Hawaii to sing in a close friend’s wedding. Because that’s why I’m here, to sing, right? It would be wrong to disappoint a close friend. I’ve found myself doing a lot of rationalizing over the past weeks when the topic of my trip has come up. But I’ll tell you the truth – as I sit here in a quiet hotel room listening to waves crash outside my window. I am not here on some kind of mission of mercy, to throw myself on the sword, leaving my babies to fend for themselves with no one but their totally capable father, as well as grandfather, grandmother and babysitter. I am here because I won the fucking twin mommy lottery. At the perfect time, just when I need it most, just when I thought I was going to explode with restlessness and tedium, a close friend asked me to sing in her wedding in Hawaii.
Two days ago I walked through the airport all alone, boarded a plane for a ten hour flight, which I spent deliciously, luxuriously unplugged and alone. No internet, no phone, no patients, no demanding toddlers, no husband wanting to know why I’m so “prickly” lately. I can remember 5 hours into the flight, after I had done a crossword puzzle, napped, and read, thinking to myself how happy I was that I still had five hours left.
The last time I rode a plane without toddlers was before my pregnancy. It felt completely unworthy of comment at the time, even inconvenient. You would think I would have been eager to arrive in Hawaii, but the funny thing is I don’t think Hawaii was even real to me at that moment. All that was real to me was time. This long, delicious stretch of uninterrupted, unplanned time with no demands.
“Love is like plunging into the darkness toward a place that may exist.” – Marge Piercy
It took me a long time to let myself love, especially when there were penises involved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of men now, but the first one I knew made a pretty bad impression. As a smart, cautious girl, the most prudent way for me to avoid re-creating my dysfunctional relationship with my father was to avoid men until I had had enough therapy to be able to trust myself around them. Of course that didn’t stop me from re-creating my dysfunctional relationship with my mom.
That’s right, during that time I was avoiding men, I dated plenty of women. I didn’t call it that at the time because we dated in all respects but one… there was never any sex. That would be too dangerous. One can never be entirely certain a woman is not one’s dad wrapped up in the body of a red-head, tomboy.
None-the-less, these sometimes enthralling, sometimes volatile, and always heartbreakingly ambiguous relationships taught me how to love, and how not to love. I even tried one with a man, eventually. Still gut-wrenchingly ambiguous, of course. Finally, in my early twenties, I had to admit that I had a problem. While these relationships were “safe” in some ways, they were mind-fucking me, badly. Trying to shield myself from intimacy for fear of getting hurt was getting me pretty badly hurt.
So I swore them off! If I was ever going to be really ready for love, I was going to have to go all in – “plunge into the darkness” without a parachute. But instead, I hid out. I avoided everyone. When I was 24, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Just before she died, my dad and I stopped speaking. I assure you, he deserved it.
After I lost my mom, I felt raw, exposed, and yet opened up from the pain. I took a lot of time. I had the twenties I’d missed out on while I’d been researching cancer treatments and battling with neuro-oncologists and brain surgeons. I traveled around Southern Africa, to Costa Rica, and backpacked for 8 days in a remote part of Wyoming. I waited tables… very badly. I applied to graduate school. I went on real dates with boys who were auditioning to have to acknowledge we were more than just friends.
Almost a year to the day after my mom died, I met Seth. After all the drama and soul-searching, and years of tearful nights with female friends wondering if there was something wrong with me that would never be fixed, it was… easy. I had these surreal moments where I’d look at Seth and think can this really be happening, and how long until I lose him too? A few months before our wedding my Gram died. We had been planning for her to walk us both down the aisle. We were devastated.
Around that same time, my father showed up on my doorstep. It had been three years. He cried until he was almost sick. He didn’t deserve my forgiveness, but I knew withholding it would hurt me more than him. My therapist always said, “We don’t do well without our tribe.” Why did my tribe have to be so fucked up?
Seth and I’s partnership ceremony was the most authentic, radical thing I’d ever done, and the people in my life accepted it joyfully. It was so disorienting, I literally lost my balance. I started having these inexplicable and quite horrible dizzy spells. It was like my world was spinning on a different axis that my body wasn’t used to yet. Still, I felt like I was building something, finally, instead of sifting through ruins. I even invited my dad, and he was strangely behaved.
Getting married for me was like stepping into a strangers life. It was the first time I felt like I wasn’t fighting like hell just to continue to exist. Was this what it was like for “those people” I saw walking around in the world? It finally occurred to me… I did have a parachute. I was my parachute. I’d gotten me here. I’d been the one who padded my fall, got me back up, and plunged again into the darkness.
When Seth and I started talking about children, the idea that I could actually add people and not just have them be slowly stripped out off my life was intoxicating. I couldn’t change the past, but I could create a better future. Then we discovered Seth had a fertility problem. Then we discovered I had worse one. We were told we would never conceive. My husband once read me a quote about your family or origin being your roots and your children being your branches. I already felt like my roots had been cut off, and now I felt like I’d lost my branches. The babies that would move like my mother or laugh like my Gram would never exist.
This is my life, I thought. This is the life that happens to me. Not the strange, surreal fairy-tale life where I meet a soul-mate, form an egalitarian partnership, and finally feel like I can be who I truly am in the world. That was indeed some kind of fantasy. Reality was back, and it was harsh. My eggs were more than ten years older than I was. It felt fitting. I felt awfully old. We grieved.
Then things started happening so fast I could barely catch my breath. Just a few short months later I found myself wandering around Soho, confused and delirious, my hippie gynecologist’s words echoing in my ears – “You have a line.” I must have sat there looking stupefied for a good half hour, while the doctor and phlebotomist tried to impress upon me that I was pregnant. A few weeks later, we saw two yoke sacs on an ultrasound. Twins. ”Whoo-hoo,” I heard myself cry. Fear be damned, this was probably my only shot, and I was more than okay with a two-for-one deal. Who knew how long this stretch of miracle would last!
This isn’t a post about loss. It’s a post about how loss can make it hard when you don’t lose. For eight weeks I held my breath every hour of every day. I wasn’t just scared to miscarry. I believed I would. That’s what I’d been told. When the doctor at the fertility clinic found out I was pregnant she looked at me suspiciously, like I was some kind of witch or something. When I hit that Sunday – 12 weeks – I had that dizzy feeling again. Can this be real, I wondered? I was already showing.
There I was in that other woman’s life again. Like all those pregnant women who’d made me cry inside just a few short months before. I began to open my heart to my babies. I could feel them kicking, hiccuping, and squirming. At 16 weeks I was told I had a boy, but the other little stinker was hiding. That was a long week. Then I was told I had a girl. I wept for joy. I think I knew that was the closest I’d come to getting my mom back. I saw every little body part at my twenty week ultrasound times two.
Then one day we went to brunch with some friends. In the bathroom I saw two tiny spots of blood. Every little twinge I’d felt for twenty weeks had me panicked, but this was different. This was the real deal. Then the waiting game started again. Counting down the hours, until they became days, until they became weeks. 21 weeks – I may not get to keep them. 24 weeks – still hardly any chance I’ll get to keep them. I remember my OBGYN giving me a stern talking to – warning me that my cervical shortening was unpredictable, and there was no guarantee I’d make it two more weeks. 28 weeks – hallelujah, I will probably get to keep them!!
My babies were born healthy and strong, almost 5 pounds each and breathing on their own, at 33.5 weeks. We were told numerous times they were the healthiest ones in the NICU, but the reminders not to get too hopeful were everywhere. I’ll never forget one night during their 19-day stay. We were leaving very late with some family. The babes were already in the step-down unit, and as we walked back through the main NICU, we could tell something was very wrong. A huge crowd of doctors and medical personnel were huddled around a tiny little girl. You could tell by the looks on their faces the situation was grave. The next day, the little girl was gone.
Now take these babies home and love them. Love them like none of this ever happened, like you weren’t told you’d never have them, like you didn’t almost lose them, like your mom didn’t call you that day from the hospital and ask you if the plumber came to the house before nonchalantly adding, “They found a brain tumor.” Take these babies home and love them like you have no idea that every moment of life is spent walking on the edge of death- like every path toward the light hasn’t led back into the darkness.
This post was inspired by a post called It Took Me 18 Months to Fall in Love with My Daughter. Sure, I loved my babies from the moment they were born. I loved them even before they were conceived. Why else would I have grieved so hard when I’d been told they were never going to come.? I love them so much it terrifies and sometimes paralyzes me. On the other hand, a part of me feels like I’m letting myself love them little by little everyday as I slowly let go of my fear.
The past two years have been like a roller coaster ride back through all the things that terrify me. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been holding my breath since they told me about that “line.” After 9 months, I finally felt like I was getting out of survival mode. I was doing it. I was keeping them alive, and myself sane. My worst fears hadn’t come to pass. I even found myself having fun now and then. Seth and I marveled at the two stunningly perfect lives we created. ”Our roots are a bit gnarly,” we agreed,” but our branches are spectacular.” Then it happened… another “line.”
This time I was equally thrown but for totally different reasons. This one wasn’t planned, and I knew on some level I’d been holding back connecting emotionally with my babies. I was already overwhelmed by trying to love more than I ever had despite all that loss-baggage. But I’m already fucking up with the ones I’ve got, I thought to myself. Miscarrying was a major set back. It didn’t just set me back to when my babies were born, or even when I’d been terrified of losing them. It set me all the way back. Back to when I was terrified to jump at all.
Suddenly, I felt completely unsafe. Unsafe in my marriage. Unsafe with my babies. Maybe this was all a big mistake, and the universe knew I wasn’t supposed to have them, either? I think on some level I believed I’d killed my baby, and I was poison. Perhaps I thought on some level that the clarity of knowing for sure that I was dangerous and deadly would feel better than accepting the randomness of when I’d lost and when I hadn’t and when I’d been told I would but didn’t.
I wanted safety, even if it hurt. Even if I risked destroying everything .I spent the months after my miscarriage working together with my husband to drive our relationship to the brink, feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped with my friends, and becoming way too dependent on a friendship that I eventually also ended up nearly destroying.
In the midst of all this, I was still trying to figure out how to be queer. I guess I always thought by time I had kids I would have found myself. I didn’t realize finding oneself happens again and again. If we’re lucky.
Turns out I didn’t lose my parachute last winter at all, I was just falling faster and harder than I had in a long, long time. The truth is it was there all along, because as close as I came to the edge, when it came down to it, I did the work I needed to do, I stuck with therapy, I held my marriage together, I was there for my kids, I realized just in time that my focus wasn’t where it needed to be, that I was acting out of terror and had lost clarity, and I started slowly, slowly pulling it together. This blog was born a year ago today, during a time of darkness and loss, only a couple short weeks after my miscarriage. I did give birth to something after all, this blog turns out to be Baby C.
In my first post on this blog, I talked about feeling like a snow-globe with all the parts of me shaken up, not knowing where they would land. Motherhood will do that. Over the past year, Undercover in the Suburbs has helped me reclaim and re-order those parts. The truth is when we become uprooted (as we inevitably do when we become parents), when we lose ourselves for any reason, as I did last winter, when we find ourselves again, we are never quite the same. I’ve lost a lot in my life, and sometimes it’s felt like losing myself.
Still, I feel the most fully me I’ve ever been right at this moment. Perhaps the truth is that every path into the darkness eventually leads back to the light. Undercover has helped me find that light. It’s been a chance to come back home to writing, to feminism, and come home for the first time to being queer. It’s helped me let go of damaging cultural notions of motherhood and define the role for myself. It’s a space where all the parts of me can co-exist, peacefully for the most part. It’s a space where I can connect with others who are travelling similar paths, and be comforted, and learn from those who’ve made different choices. It’s a space where I can make myself more whole, recover from my losses, and thus make more room for love. I’m still working at it. That’s what I’ve learned. I will always be working at it. For me, love may always feel like plunging into the darkness, but I’ve got this parachute. Me. I’m the parachute. Thank you for reading.
So what will the next year bring? Integration. My next step must be bringing my “real” life more in line with Lyla Cicero’s online existence. Stay tuned this year as I work toward that integration. Stay tuned for posts on coming farther out, honoring my inner teenage lesbian, battling mono-sexism in myself and the outside world, egalitarian/feminist/non-heteronormative parenting on a collision course with SCHOOL, and thus, the large society, and many other subjects.
My main goal for the blog this year is to get more of you involved. Despite the catharsis of writing these posts, the greatest joy and fulfillment I get is from reading your comments, getting your emails, and dialogue-ing with you. I hope to get more folks reading, and more of you commenting and making your voices heard. Undercover isn’t just for me. It’s for anyone searching for themselves and working to create a more LGBTQQIAPK-friendly, sex-positive, identity-fluid, gender-egalitarian world.
“Opened the door, knew what was me, finally realized, parachute over me.” – Guster
Only when my twins were 20 months old did they master the correct use of the words “mama” and “dada.” They took quite a long time to even SAY these words, despite beginning to talk about six months prior. Their first words were “uh oh” and “ba ba” (bottle), (ba)”nana,” “hi,” “bye” and “boon” (balloon). I figured, okay, as long as they are starting to say words, no problem. But on the inside I was wondering what was wrong. Was I, as Mama, not as important to them as I should be if they learned “boon” first? Had I been neglectful somehow? I couldn’t help measuring myself against other moms with kids younger than mine who were constantly saying “Mama.”
In the next few months the twins started throwing around the words Mama and Dada, but they didn’t seem to be in reference to anyone. Sometimes they would point at the window or a light switch and shout “Mama.” Sometimes they were directed toward Seth or I, but also toward the babysitter, Grammy and Grampy, aunts and uncles, etc. What was this about? Wasn’t I supposed to be much more important than these other folks?
My anxiety only increased when their words started to get more complex. They started saying “window,” “shake it” (when we danced) and “okra.” My daughter started to refer to her Minnie Mouse doll as “Minya Minya Maow” and her stuffed kangaroo as “Kanga.” Really, I thought, you know Minnie and Kanga and Hippo and Poo Bear and not Mama? I was starting to feel peeved. Okay, maybe even a little hurt. Then something strange began to happen. One day my daughter looked right at me, and with a big smile, and great exuberance, as though she’d had had a revelation, she shouted “Dada!” and pointed in my direction. Over the next couple weeks both babies began to refer to my husband AND me as DaDa.
There is still peace in the world, but it's not on your iphone.
Is it possible to mourn a tragedy, fight for gun control and mental health access, and manage our own fears and terror without concluding the world is a dangerous place and passing that fear on to our kids? Yes. And as parents, we have no choice. We have to find that balance. Otherwise, we are the ones creating that terrible, dangerous world. Our kids are looking to us to understand what is dangerous and what isn’t, and to teach them to determine when to take risks and when to be cautious. If we teach them that the world is full of evil people seeking to harm them, we are not only giving them false information, we are robbing them of a full life.
A horrific, unfathomable tragedy occurred in Newtown, Connecticut this month. For me, when those children go through my mind, they all have the faces of my precious twins. My maternal instinct tells me to lock the doors, close the shades, batten down the hatches, and teach my children to be afraid. That is the world we live in, right? Don’t talk to strangers, stay inside, don’t touch that, you can’t go in there, you never know, use hand sanitizer, abstinence only, better safe than sorry.
I can’t say how frequently I hear parents musing longingly about how they used to play outside all day from morning until night, left to their own devices to manage relationships with other kids, explore, solve problems, and make their own fun without parental supervision. When I hear these things I’m always puzzled. If these parents know how good this was for them, why don’t they let their children do the same? But before I can even respond, I hear the inevitable, “But this is a different world… you just can’t do that anymore.” Where did we get this idea, and who is benefitting from it? Certainly not our kids.
Last week I brought my children to a playgroup that meets in the basement of a church in my town. There were many kids there ranging from infants to 5 year-olds. The folks were friendly and there was a great, almost entirely enclosed space for the kids to play. The facilitators had a simple craft for the kids to do. They decorated “flashlights” (paper towel tubes) and then went on a “bear hunt” around the basement area.
As the other children played inside the enclosed area, my little J dedicated himself, in typical form, to escape. I’m not just talking about escape from that area, but from the building. We had come down an elevator, and J ran down the hall toward the elevator repeatedly shouting “press-a the button!” Had I not chased him quickly enough he would have happily rode the elevator up and exited the building. In the meantime, O pulled every single book off the shelves, and dumped several bags of blocks which she then proceeded to ignore. She sat on the lap of most of the adults there, much to their confusion.
When the craft began, I tried to interest my kids in it. Somehow, someway, all the babies and kids managed to participate but mine. While the other kids colored (some with parents’ help), mine ran around, jumped on furniture, and attempted to escape up the escalator. When the “bear hunt” began, my kids were nowhere in sight.
Before I started graduate school, I spent several years taking courses I needed in order to apply, volunteering in clinical and research settings, talking to folks who already had doctorates, and simply thinking about whether this was what I wanted. I knew getting a doctorate would be a massive undertaking that would impact every aspect of my life. I knew a lot of the steps in the process would be grueling drudgery, like taking my comprehensive exams and writing my dissertation. I had enough people warn me that there would be times I would wonder if I had made the wrong choice, and might even consider quitting, so when those things happened I wasn’t completely thrown. I reminded myself I had been warned but had made the decision anyway because I believed, in the end, grad school would be worthwhile. I wasn’t expecting to feel great all along the way, but I sure did feel great when I walked up and claimed my diploma and folks started calling me doctor.
I have a very smart friend who also has a doctoral degree. When talking about the transition to having a daughter, she told me she thought having a child would disrupt her life for about two months, and then she would return to her “normal life” – back to work, back to the status quo in her relationship, “just with this cute little person there.” Well you can imagine the rough transition she had when reality hit! Imagine going into grad school expecting to have your life hardly be altered? No one would ever get their degree. Imagine thinking you could just write your dissertation on the side in your spare time. Imagine showing up for the New York Marathon expecting to feel blissful the whole time. Expectation is everything. The same experience can feel drastically different depending on what we are expecting. But it order to manage our expectations we have to make an informed choice to do something and not have it thrust upon us.
Some key ways to manage expectations about having children:
Flooding from river a few blocks away last year during Irene.
As super-storm Sandy continues her collision course with our area, with storm surges predicted to travel straight down into the river a few blocks from my house, I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to whether the storm inside.
The generator is ready to go, sump pump tested, water jugs are frozen, bathtub is full, flashlights on the counter, fridge filled with milk, and most importantly, a new book uploaded on my fully-powered kindle. Now who is going to save me, my husband and our property from our children?
I heard a lovely little report on NPR this morning about how to keep children occupied during the storm. She told me to make tents. I do plan to make tents, to hide from my children in.
You know what really burns me? Having to keep hearing about using the storm as a time for quality family bonding. I get literally all the bonding I can handle. Typically, tomorrow morning, my babysitter would arrive, and I would skip off to work after three full days of family “bonding.” Tomorrow, that’s not going to happen, and that, my friends, is a state of emergency.
A brief respite from the storm - view from our cruise ship.
Sometimes parenting is like walking into the surf during a hurricane. You keep getting knocked down, you keep getting back up, and just when think to yourself, “I’ve got this one, I’m still standing,” a bigger wave comes along and knocks you on your ass. I guess I was expecting my kids to get sick a lot in the first few years. What I wasn’t expecting was the number of ailments I myself would be afflicted with. It’s one thing balancing toddler twins and working. I’m pretty sure that alone would be somewhat manageable. Add in to the mix that those toddler twins are sick, and the odds start stacking against me. Those giant waves just keep coming. Now add in that I somehow manage to repeatedly get even sicker than they are, and just for good measure, sprain my ankle as well. Now we’re moving into the realm of a tsunami.
Thanks to all who have followed the discussion this week.
Valenti makes an interesting defense mechanism argument, that part of the reason we moms buy into over-parenting and obsessing about minutiae is to shield ourselves from 1)the frightening reality that we don’t have control over whether our kids will be okay, and 2)we aren’t getting the support from society and sometimes from men that we should.
“We focus on the absurd, rather than the everyday, because the mundane is too real-too out of control – to face.”
“And the terrifying reality is that from the moment our children are born thers’a wlays a chance they could be taken away from us. I don’t know about you, but worrying about BPA-free pacifies seems a hell of a lot more sanity saving.”
Final Discussion Question: Do you buy the defense mechanism argument as a way for women to deny either the frightening reality of lack of control or to deny the lack of support and not face the unfair cultural expectations on us.
I actually have a difficult time answering this one. I’m not big on denial, it’s not my nature. I spend plenty of time worrying about actual big things that could happen to my kids and I feel like that actually makes it hard for me to obsess over things like which sippy cup is best and whether a certain pre-school will get my kids into Harvard. Also, as my readers know all too well, I’m not particularly in denial about the martyr mommy culture I rant about on frequent occasion. I guess it’s hard for me to say if other moms are helicopter parenting as a defense mechanism, but it certainly makes sense as an argument.
I do think it’s also important to look not just as the woman’s perspective, but who is perpetuating this type of obsessing. There are massive industry’s profiting of women (and some men) obsessing about children’s well-being, what they should eat, what toys and products will best stimulate them, what educational tools they need, classes to enrich them, consultants and self-help gurus to help with everything and anything, the right clothes, car seats, formula, etc. I think it’s important rather too look at how the bombardment of cultural messages that we SHOULD be obsessing interplays with our own psychology.
Additionally, if we are obsessing over our kids in order to not face how isolated we are and unsupported, that is also being perpetuated by culture. Everyone in society who is not supporting us, not paying into state-sponsored childcare and paternal leave, not stepping us, not doing their share of parenting their own kids, not making workplaces more parent friendly, etc. is benefiting from moms being too focused on being perfect to stand up and demand better. This problem isn’t located in our psyches, but in society.