A rather new friend said to me after she first attended a party at our house, “I have the feeling that you are very connected. I thought about that for about ten seconds and said, “Yes, I guess I am.”
Those many connections were part of the reason that I got jazzed when reading the announcement of a future juried art show on the subject of motherhood. Since one thing I do is paint found objects with themes that interest me, mostly with messages ecological and political, I thought that these connections, many of whom are mothers, would be a great source of text for a project. I have a rickety little cradle whose destiny has never been made manifest. Too frail and splintery for an actual child’s toy. But compelling nonetheless and it hasn’t taken up too much storage room these many years. It has just been waiting for this project.
I fired off the following email to maybe 80 women whose ages span my daughters’ ages and my own (approximately 35 – 70): "Dear Family and Friends, I am doing an art project on motherhood. Would you be so kind to send me a few words, or a sentence or two on your thoughts about motherhood, based on your experience. It can be serious, casual, deep, cynical, heart-felt, funny, flippant, religious or from any other emotion that strikes you. I will not identify anyone, but I need to get a critical number to make it work. Don't think too hard on it. Thanks in advance, Karen"
Within two days I had heard from 47, many with comments that blew me away. We all know that motherhood is not only an intensely powerful state; also that it is politically fraught. My husband, observing women, daughters and motherhood from a decidedly male perspective over the years said, “Motherhood is mysterious. The intensity of motherhood defies rational or biological explanation.”
Because I am a social worker, and because at points I worked in survey research, it is my first impulse to sort and categorize the responses I collected. I am resisting that and rather, reacting with my gut. These responses are divided roughly into those exalting their motherhood experience, those acknowledging the glorious dichotomy, and those coming at it obliquely such as a friend who is awaiting a diagnosis, probably of ALS, who responded “you don’t feel the love of your kids until your life is in danger.” Pow. How much more powerful could it be than that? That response immediately drew me back to a therapist friend who said “I’ll bet you are finding out some interesting things about your friends.” Pow. Wow. What could be more intense than that to learn by casting a wide net to glean thoughts on motherhood.
There are those whose cryptic messages reveal their struggle and its resolution: “A privilege and a prison.” And “three phrases for three phases: finding yourself; losing yourself; reclaiming yourself. The last phase is the best.” A mother of four, grandmother of five is brevity itself: “Children are a life sentence.” The wonderful social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich is quoted as follows, “Take motherhood. Nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent.”
Responses from mothers who didn’t imagine they would be mothers, such as “My fantasy title for a book I would write is Without Maternal Instinct. I think it describes how I felt about parenting--it's not 'natural' for everyone but that doesn't mean you can't be successful at it. I think that I have an awesomely well-adjusted, successful and happy child, and I'm willing to take a lot of credit for that, but instinct certainly didn't seem to describe how we got there.” Or, from a friend of the previous woman “since I was married and carefree for a long time before I decided to get pregnant I remember wondering if I’d ever really be able to be “myself” again. Or would everything I did have to change so I would set this perfect example? Well, I remained imperfect and the young man seems not to have suffered.”
A friend who was relatively young when her son was born wrote this: “I wrote a poem for someone else’s baby shower. When I saw your email I thought of it, and it still resonates. Her four stanza poem is a love song to the miracle that is her son, including the admonition that a helpful requirement is to have a “Jewish grandmother.” She continued, “this from someone who never even wanted kids! I am thankful beyond words that lack of desire did not stop me from giving birth to my incredible son. I was certainly not a typical mother but I was a very fulfilled one - and it still gets better every single minute of every single day.”
Women whose lives have taken unexpected turns write poignantly. “Motherhood can be very challenging when you have a partner. It is almost impossible if you are alone. Ask my children.” Or, a woman who has experienced abandonment by her husband: “As long as I have the children I feel as though I’ll never be alone, delusional as that may be.”
A very successful and innovative therapist friend writes that the first thing that comes to mind is, “it's the one thing i had to be, great source of comfort, pleasure, fun. Worry too, of course. My connection to my kids (and grandkids now, but even that's different) is the great glue of my life. My work is what focuses my energy, but my kids are my glue.