Monday, March 15, 2010

mask of motherhood

Before you enter the sorority of mothers, you may be told that it completely changes your life (but of course you wouldn't want it any other way); that it comes with the greatest love of all (and who doesn't want to experience that); that children make you see the world with new eyes again (this point in particular appealed to me). Some may tell you it's really hard (shrouding the statement with an uninterpretable open endedness that leaves you dangling in the air).

I remember at times seeing exasperated looks in the eyes of friends with children (especially those with kids who'd reached toddlerhood), but I can't remember anyone looking me in the eyes the way Susan Maushart's older sister did when Susan asked her, in a playful sort of way, "Well, tell me about motherhood. What's it really like, anyway?" a few weeks after the birth of her sister's first child, thinking her sister spent an inordinate amount of time trying to concentrate on nursing her baby. "I was taken aback by the intensity of her response," writes Maushart in The Mask of Motherhood; "She looked away from the baby (and that in itself was a rare occurrence), and stared straight into my eyes. 'I'm going to tell you this now, and I want you to remember it,' she began. 'Everyone lies. Do you hear me? Everyone lies about what it's like to have a baby. Don't listen to them. Just watch me, and remember.'" (11)

With The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn't (1999), Maushart (who holds a Ph.D. from New York University, is a columnist, author, university lecturer, and has also worked as a stand-up comedy writer) has given me the most honest and insightful text on motherhood to this day, after Anne Lamott's Operating Instruction: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1993).

Maushart seeks to empower mothers with the truth. We may wear "the mask of motherhood" to cover up all "the chaos and complexity of our lived experience. But thereby we divide mother from daughter, sister from sister, friend form friend, creating an abrupt and tragic chasm between adults who have children and adults who don't. (2) And most importantly, we disempower ourselves.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we not pass on the knowledge so that women who become mothers (most of us) can face it better equipped and be surrounded by greater understanding? Are we so ashamed of the insane pandemonium we encounter, the overwhelming tedium, the struggle to do it all when we thought we could have it all? Why will overbearing friends and family, already initiated mothers, just nod with a smirk when we sigh about how hard it is ("told you so"), what's the real meaning of that? Is the statement "it will change everything" really providing any real knowledge at all?

"The housewife of the 1950s and 1960s was told she had it all, and was left to wonder guiltily, 'Is that all there is?' Today's woman is also told she has it all--and there are times when she would give almost anything for a refund. Whereas our mothers' generation suffered a sense of emptiness, we are more likely to be feeling distinctly overfull. And the impoverished expectations and life choices of women a generation ago have given way to an embarrassment of riches." (xi-xii)

It's not just that motherhood comes with the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, it's all those other things we set out to do, career, friendships, romance, exercise, political engagement, community work, etc.

"Mothering is the most powerful of all biological capacities, and among the most disempowering of all social experiences" (22).

"For many women today, it is not the experience of gaining a baby that proves unbalancing so much as the experience of losing their professional identity and the routines and perks associated with life as an autonomous, wage-earning grown-up" (122).

Women today are told we can do it all. "Maybe so, but the stubborn and politically incorrect fact remains that we cannot do everything. And more specifically, we cannot mother young children at the same time as we pursue a life of our own devising, or at least not int e way we have been encouraged to devise it" (122).

Today's women are primed for achievement, but we find ourselves not "combining" motherhood with the rest of life in calm blend and balance, but desperately juggling, hanging on for dear life.

"All things were meant to be possible. The discovery that only a few of them are achievable, and some of those are mutually exclusive anyway, comes as a nasty shock." (178)

"We married and became mothers in the expectation that our lives or independence and achievement would remain fundamentally unaltered ... We are shocked to discover, and often too ashamed to admit, how far from this ideal we have traveled." (181)

But if we let this shock and shame, confusion and overwhelm silence us, we're not helping ourselves in the long run. "Where a decision is largely uninformed, the power of the decision maker is largely illusory" (246). In theory, we have the power, but we lack an open "knowledge base" from where to assert our power to choose, to say yes to some things, no to others, without guilt or embarrassment.


  1. I totally agree. I'm almost 6 years into motherhood now, so much of the trauma of those early weeks/months has faded, but giving birth to, recovering from the birth of, and parenting my first newborn was terribly, terribly difficult. I have never felt so alone. My memories of that first year are--and I almost cringe when typing this, because it's just not accepted to say this--mostly negative. And you know I love her with all my heart, and would never trade her for anything! But you just aren't prepared for new motherhood, ever, by anyone, and certainly not for new motherhood in any kind of unusually difficult situation (Julia had difficulty nursing at first, I developed multiple repeated breastfeeding infections, she had colic, we had no family nearby, I didn't know even one other mom of a baby.)

    By the way, for a poignant, funny, true-to-life but still touching and sweet take on motherhood, have you read Catherine Newman's "Waiting for Birdy"? Not academic or research based, but a great read and my favorite book on motherhood, for her gorgeous writing.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Shan! I think these are exactly the kinds of experiences we need to start recognizing.

    And thanks for the book tips; I looked it up at amazon and I definitely want to read it!


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