Our Motherhood, Our Selves

March 19, 2008

When I wrote that MILF post the other day, I was sort of expecting that there might be one or two people, at least, that might say that they embraced the term MILF. To which I was fully prepared (and even set up the groundwork in the post) to say, hey, fine, whatever floats your empowerment boat. I have no interest in telling people what they should or should not find empowering; I just have some clear opinions about what seems to me to be unempowering. But although some people said that the term didn’t bother them (which, again, fine; I’m not looking to ban the term), no one said that they embraced it or took it seriously.

That, however, wasn’t the thing that most surprised me in the comments. What surprised me most was that someone turned up and read the whole discussion as an affirmation of the general tendency of mothers to view themselves as superior to other women and to other human beings in general:

Um. The statement that mothers are sexually more interesting is just as offensive as the suggestion that they’re not… Mothers are women. Childless women are women. There’s no “winner” but there seems to be this divisive battle going on, particularly in the blogging sphere. Problem is, I don’t see any non-mothers claiming superiority in the way I see mothers doing so.

My response – admittedly knee-jerk – was to defend the intended literal meaning of what I’d actually said:

I said that *I* was sexually more interesting, as compared to my pre-maternal self. It was a personal reference, not a universal one (although I would argue that sexual self-awareness and maturity does make one more interesting as a sexual partner generally. This, however, does not apply exclusively to mothers…) The fact is – as one anonymous commenter above makes abundantly clear – that mothers, as a group, are often regarded as asexual or unsexual by the culture at large, and certainly by popular culture.

When I gave it another moment’s thought, however, I realized that my irritation at the comment wasn’t that I’d been misunderstood, or that the commenter had missed my point about the whole MILF thing being demeaning to women generally, but rather that someone was bringing up this old saw about mothers having a superiority complex, and that I was going to have address it lest my head explode.

There are a lot of things that I could say about this whole ‘mothers think they’re special’/'parents think that the whole world should revolve around them’ nonsense, not least among which would be that until you’ve had a child, you can’t possible realize how many facking obstacles the world throws at human beings who pack children around with them. But my primary argument would be this: yes, actually, mothers (and to some extent, parents generally) do think that they are special. Not as a matter of superiority, but as a matter of difference. We have a differiority complex. We view ourselves as fundamentally different in many respects from people who do not have children. (Note this important point: NOT BETTER THAN. DIFFERENT THAN.)

Once you have given birth to or adopted a child, your entire world changes. Your entire world, and THE entire world, changes. You come to understand love in an entirely different way than you could ever have possibly understood it in the absence of the human being that is entirely dependent upon you. You come to understand your body, and bodies generally, in an entirely different way. You come to understand faith and morality and safety and security and learning and dependence and independence and fear – oh my god the fear – and passion and defensiveness in ways that you could not possibly understand if you did not have that child. This is, in my opinion, just fact. Children change you fundamentally and uniquely. Someone who has not had a child simply cannot understand the nature of this change firsthand.

This does not mean that people without children are less than, or inferior to, people with children. It just means that our life experiences are different. Parents – and especially mothers, I think – know things that non-parents cannot possibly know, because of those different experiences. If you do not have a child – by birth or adoption or whatever – or have not had a child (it does not matter for how long – five seconds or five years or five decades – or under what circumstances children might have been lost or given up, the experience of the having, however briefly, is what is fundamental) you cannot know how having a child changes you, how it changes your perspective, how it changes your relationship to yourself and the world. How it changes your heart. This is no different from saying that people who have faced death, or gone to university, or travelled the world have fundamentally different life experiences and different knowledge than those who have not experienced those things. It’s just that mothers, and parents, are a larger group, and so their recognition of themselves as a group with certain fundamental likenesses is perhaps more obvious in the culture.

So, yes: mothers do identify as a group and do bond over the similarities in their experiences (not least among these: oh my god did you know that it would be like this?) and do sympathize with each other over certain common struggles that they – rightly or wrongly – perceive to be unique to their experience as mothers. Because they want to, and because they need to. It’s a whole different world out here in Mommy Land, and for many of us it will take the whole rest of our lives to get used to it.

And if we sometimes (and I do hope that it is only sometimes, because we do spend time in other places) act or speak or write as if you need a special passport to get to this place and to really experience and understand it, it’s not that we don’t respect your travels and experiences – we do, because we’ve been on many of those same journeys ourselves. It’s just, well, you do need a special passport to get here and understand it for yourself.

It’s called a kid.

******

You all? Have made this such a TREMENDOUS discussion. I encourage anybody coming to this post for the first – or the eleventh – time to read the comments, and (of course) my contributions to the comments. Some of you have made me rethink some specific elements of my argument – ALL of you have me think, period – and I’ve explained that rethinking below, in the commentary. I heart you, Internets, I really do.

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    { 78 comments }

    emorc March 20, 2008 at 5:53 am

    A great truth beautifully expressed. I’ll be adding you to my roll :)

    Your experiences change you whether it’s travelling, being your own boss, surviving illness or becoming a parent. I think the great impact of being a parent is that it changes you fundamentally for the rest of your life. Other experiences, although profound, usually “lose” some of their impact after a while.

    Christine March 20, 2008 at 7:33 am

    i heart HBM

    Running on empty

    Christine March 20, 2008 at 7:43 am

    i do just want to say, though, that lara hit something on the head for me. the general feeling of “someday you’ll get it” is one as parents we need to be careful about. i don’t think you are doing it in this post, but it is a tendency that moms and dads often tend to have toward the childless and we need to avoid that as much as we can. i’ve also been in other situations where i felt “excluded” because of my lack of experience be it a certain type of grief a religious experience or a race issue, to name only a few examples. sometimes it is better to try and discuss and share with the “other” rather than dismiss the outsider. again, i don’t think you are dismissing the outsider in this case, but it is a common attitude among people who regard themselves as different in someway.

    excellent post.

    Running on empty

    wright March 20, 2008 at 7:55 am

    I completely agree and I wouldn’t have until 9 months ago when I had my baby. It really does change you.

    Judging by some of the comments, I think you might have opened up a new can of worms with this post. Hang strong!

    Anonymous March 20, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Geeklady Said:
    “Where are the FILF/DILF acronyms? The smarmy ‘foxy fathers’ or ‘delicious daddies’ in the media?

    Fuck this. Sexy is an attitude, not a number on the scale, a level of trendiness, or a mode of apparel.”

    My Response:
    Well, that was my POINT. Sexy IS an attitude, and Moms (in my experience) turn it off.

    Lamont

    scarbie doll March 20, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Admittedly, I haven’t been here in a while. But this was a solid post CC.

    I never wanted to believe the difference between moms and non-moms. Then I became one and suddenly the differences were jarringly obvious. Aw heck, I don’t want to crowd your inbox. Maybe I’ll just right my own damn post about it. Thanks for the inspiration.

    verybadcat March 20, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Oh, HBM, I didn’t mean that you offended me. I mean, as a knee jerk reaction, yes, but I absolutely understand that you weren’t intending to.

    I think it comes back to the truth hurts. Sometimes, you can soften it and not be quite so hurtful, sometimes nothing but bare honesty will do.

    It’s just a part of life, and I am not afraid to admit that when it is FINALLY my turn to get knocked up that I won’t turn to the first person who makes an assvice comment from Camp A and say “what do you know, have you ever been knocked up?”

    Just like when I used to hate my Dad for telling me to dress warmer when I used to complain that the house was too cold, and then WH and I had been living on our own for six months, and I had paid six electric bills, and WH complained that it was cold and I said “go put a sweatshirt on”. Without batting an eyelash. Same, same, same thing. :)

    Tracy March 20, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I agree with what you wrote, parenting does make you different, just like every other experience in one’s life makes one different from everyone else. Experience is what makes us who we are. What can be irritating to me is when women assume that motherhood is the ultimate experience that defines a woman. As you mentioned above, there are lots of “Camp Bs,” and for me, some of those Camp Bs are just as important, or more so, than my experience as a mother. I think its foolish for women to assume they will bond simply because of their shared experience with motherhood. I am a mother in my mid-thirties who suffers from infertility and who spent the last dozen or so years working on an advanced degree. When I am thrust into a situation with a woman in her early twenties who chose to have her children young, who gets pregnant at the blink of an eye, and who has no desire to continue her education, the fact that we are both mothers will do little to counterbalance the fact that we have LITTLE ELSE IN COMMON. I’m not trying to disagree with you, just add to your thought…while motherhood gives us all a passport, those passports are not all to the same country. There are many, many different types of mothers, just like there are many, many different types of women, and the mere fact that two women have a child is no indicator of those women’s compatibility or “same-iority.”

    Mimi March 20, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Wait a minute. You don’t drive? I’m now wondering if our epistemic communities overlap ** at all **

    :-)

    Karen MEG March 20, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    BRA-VO!!!!

    pkzcass March 20, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    sueb0b, your comment makes me want to be a better mother. thanks for the beautiful words.

    tracy, i agree completely. well said.

    Alison March 20, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    MILF??? I’m trying, I’m trying, truly I am … but what does it mean????

    Ms. Huis Herself March 21, 2008 at 12:06 am

    How true, true, true. Thank you for this!

    Anonymous March 21, 2008 at 4:48 am

    First off let me say I loved your post and agreed with it very much.

    I’m going to make a total ass of myself in front of all your readers and tell you the truth right now. I DO think I am BETTER THAN **A LOT** (not all) of non-parents. But that is just me, being honest. I find that a lot of people without children tend to hook onto things (cats, dogs, fashion, self-absorption, their careers, haha, I am being SO INCREDIBLY stereotypical right now.) and that’s all they see. I’ve actually let go of a lot of my friends that don’t have kids since I became a parent because we simply don’t have things in common anymore. They will never understand what it is like to have children, but I understand where they are—that’s who I was before children! It’s hard to listen to a friend complain about how she had such a hard day because she “got a speeding ticket and her heel broke and they gave that other girl the promotion!” When you just want to scream, yah that happened to me too, before I had kids, but today I had to watch my daughter have three seizures and take the littlest one to the ER for a massive ear infection.” Now that is a bad day! We have been where they are. Now we are mother’s as well. That doesn’t make us better people, but c’mon, we’ve been there done that. Don’t act like you know what you are talking about until you’ve pushed another human being out of your vagina. Hell YES I’m going to claim superiority! I’ve done what non-parents do PLUS some!

    Sandra March 21, 2008 at 6:53 am

    Yes being a mother makes one different (not superior – which I don’t think you ever meant to imply). I agree with what many of your comments have said that so do many other experiences (make you different).

    I also think though that there are lots of kinds of mothers and I have trouble with the campA and campB concept in it’s simplicity. There are mothers who don’t want to be mothers, there are mothers whose whole life is ONLY about being a mother, there are mothers who only 2% of their lives are about being a mother, there are mothers who would like to be mothers again but can’t, there are mothers who should never ever have become a mother. All of these women (and many more such categories) would see and experience motherhood verrrrrry differently from each other. And they’d see and experience the world almost as differently as the mom vs non-mom discussion.

    Just another thought to throw into the ring.

    Such a great post as always my friend.

    Dr. Leah - Transformation Revolution March 21, 2008 at 10:46 am

    This was a great post – and is a great discussion.

    15 years ago I was in a training where we were asked to split into two groups – agree or disagree with this statement: “People without children can understand people who have children.”

    I didn’t have children and stood on the side of the room with the people who agreed with this statement (not surprisingly – we were all people who did not have children). The parents were all on the other side of the room.

    I remember being kind of offended that they didn’t think that I/we could understand them. This all changed three years later, when I became pregnant and then had my first child. I had no idea how much differently I would feel (as well as how unprepared for motherhood I would feel.)

    This quote sums up everything for me:

    “Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

    Thanks for such a profound series of discussions.

    Leah

    ALI March 21, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Before I had children I wanted them, but I never gave any thought to how it would change me or how I would be different because of it. I was just focused on the wanting children part. I did everything I could to learn from other mothers around me.

    My own mother had to be a mother to three of us under horrible circumstances. We were poor, my brother was kidnapped and returned, she and my dad divorced, she remarried, and he left after the kidnapping.She had no support from anyone, not even her mother. I saw up close how hard it could be, the act of sheer will and love it can be to just get up every day and keep surviving, and try to keep us normal. Because of this I have never underestimated what being a mother meant, what I was committing myself too.

    I underestimated the joy, the fun parts, the silliness. How just looking at those two sets of huge eyes can make me sing inside. No one could have explained that to me, and because of that, what I would be willing to do for my children no matter what…

    Its not tangible, it’s not anything I could have wrapped my head around before I had these little people.

    Life is a set of new discoveries and experiences that form who you are, this is just one of them.

    ALI March 21, 2008 at 11:57 am

    sorry that was so long-as usual you sparked some deep thinking!

    Beth March 21, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    I read this yesterday and had to take an evening to calm down before I commented as I know that you had every intention of not being condescending to strangers. But that is how it came off to me.

    (I should state, although I don’t know why, that I don’t have children for myriad reasons — I can’t for my health, for one — but none of those reasons is that I dislike children.)

    I agree with Leah that this is most likely a semantics thing, and I’m glad that you cleared that up in the comments, as here are traditionally the two people who tell me I just can’t understand what it’s like:

    - That guy who went to Thailand after the dot com bust and now came home to discuss how no one can know poverty or understand the beauty of a “simpler” culture until you visit a country like that. Then he takes up yoga and strips his apartment of knick knacks, but hopes you won’t notice that he kept his iPod and is making six figures as a consultant but doesn’t send any cash to charity. (This guy is also That Girl who moved to a Big City and is condescending to people in Small Town about the energy of The City, as well as the Art Major who went to Rome over the summer and tells you that you just can’t even get a sense of Michelangelo’s David until you see it, and don’t even look at a picture of it because it’s nowhere near the same.)

    -Victims who genuinely went through something horrific and genuinely cannot describe how awful they felt.

    The Victim gets a pass, as they’re right: I don’t know what it’s like to have gone through what they’ve experienced, and to pretend I understand without a similar experience is condescending to them. I can only offer an empathetic ear.

    But parents aren’t victims. At least I hope they don’t see themselves that way.

    Therefore, parents who claim I will just never get it fall into the World Traveler/ Big City Girl/ Art Major realm. It reads like an assumption that I’m either not smart enough or imaginative enough to take my own experiences and come up with an inkling of what they’re talking about. And no, I will never get the magnitude of love/frustration/devotion that parents feel toward a child, but I know how my parents feel about me, and I know how I feel about my nieces and nephews. I get the microcosm if not the macrocosm.

    I want my friends with children to tell me how they are and what they’re doing because those people are my friends. If they assume I cannot possibly get the smallest idea of that relationship, though, they are doing me, our friendship, and their children a disservice.

    Her Bad Mother March 21, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Beth, it was certainly not my intention to suggest that non-parents can’t get ‘even the smallest idea’ of the parental experience – my analogy about travelling/passports/etc was meant to convey the idea that someone who has never been to MommyLand (or Rome, or Thailand, or where-ever) simply can’t have firsthand experience. They can certainly have indirect experience, they can study it, read about it, expose themselves to the culture, blah blah blah – but they’ll never get, ENTIRELY, what it feels like to be Roman or Thai or, yes, MOMMY.

    The one minor change I would make to that argument – after considering Sandra’s comment – is that women who *try* to become mothers, want badly to become mothers, do experience firsthand some of what I’m talking about – I included birth mothers and mothers who have lost pregnancies in the post because such an experience begins from the moment of falling in love with your child, whether or not that child ends up being your or coming into being at all. I would add that, upon reflection, that the *idea* of child can be fallen in love with, and that that gives one a taste of the experience of motherhood before one even gets one’s citizenship card.

    I’d also add – per Sandra’s comment – that the experiences I’ve described aren’t necessarily universal to all mothers. One needs to be a mother to know, firsthand, these experiences, but not all mothers will experience. It’s what we call in the social sciences a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.

    WHOA. May need to write more about this. If that’s even possible. You all have given me so much tremendous food for thought.

    Beth March 21, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for the clarification — I did get what you were trying to say with the whole passport thing (which I do think is a good analogy) after I’d calmed down, but then got all riled up again when other commenters kept reiterating that I could just NEVER, EVER — oh, and did I mention? — EVER get it.

    Her Bad Mother March 21, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Further to Beth’s comment:

    Beth, you say that “the Victim gets a pass, as they’re right: I don’t know what it’s like to have gone through what they’ve experienced, and to pretend I understand without a similar experience is condescending to them. I can only offer an empathetic ear…
    But parents aren’t victims. At least I hope they don’t see themselves that way… Therefore, parents who claim I will just never get it fall into the World Traveler/ Big City Girl/ Art Major realm.”

    I disagree with the comparison – parents are not victims in the sense of being victims, but they are more directly comparable to your example of victim, inasmuch as their experience is as profoundly life-altering (facing death firsthand, facing birth – *directly* comparable). The travellers, the art-school majors – their experiences, while important and deeply felt, are superficial in comparison. They just are.

    So, no, few parents would refer themselves as victims in any amount of seriousness (don’t get me started on the question of whether I would only be half-jesting on the many occassions that I DO describe myself as a victim) – but ‘victims’ are not the only ones whose lives are altered by profound experiences. The counterpart to life-changing negative experiences (death, injury, loss) is life-changing positive experience (birth, adoption) which change lives as – I would actually say more – fundamentally.

    To compare parenthood to going to New York or Thailand or art school fundamentally misunderstands it. As I said above, travelling and education are more akin to the vicarious experience of parenthood that people experience as aunts and uncles and friends. It’s not firsthand experience of citizenship in parenting – it’s tourism. It can be deeply felt, and deeply loved, but it’s not the same.

    Her Bad Mother March 21, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    gah – that sounded pissy, didn’t it? sorry. your example did make me think, but then I got all teacher-y about it. sorry.

    Beth March 21, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    No worries. It was a good point that flaws the analogy.

    I didn’t mean to compare parenthood to traveling to Thailand. I meant to compare Smug Parents to Smug World Travelers.

    But if we are going to put parenthood in the Life Changes realm (let’s avoid Victimhood as its title, shall we?), haven’t we all had life changes, positive and negative? And granted, I don’t know what it was like to become a parent, but I do know what it was like to be in the waiting room of the hospital as well as greeting the plane from China when my sisters became parents.

    It didn’t feel like tourism. It felt like I moved to Rome, and granted, I didn’t move there permanently, but I learned to speak the language and understand the customs.

    *Sigh.* I guess it all just comes down to individual experience and assumptions we make about other people without knowing the full story.

    Minnesota Matron March 22, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Seems like HBM and Beth are grappling with the heart of the matter.

    So there are key experiences, like surviving a rape, fighting on the front lines of a war, fighting a possibly terminal disease, etc. that are transformative.

    It’s not that the person who hasn’t actively experienced said event can’t imagine or empathize or try to somehow reproduce. We must! Otherwise, how do we as a culture make meaning, convey information, grow?

    But the experience itself — and I would put parenthood in here — in transformative.

    Now, the hard-core post-structuralist in me would note that we transform on a minute by minute basis. I’m not the same person I was when I woke up: lots of little things that made up my day now course through me.

    But sometimes the experiences that shape us are noticeable, identifiable because they transform us into something slightly (or greatly) different than ourselves.

    People ask me sometimes if I can imagine my life without children.

    I would have an amazing life. I absolutely can envision that life. I see friends my own age without children and hope that I can extend myself enough to walk in their shoes.

    So I think that give/take is not only possible, but essential.

    And finally, the feminist in me is just appalled at MILF. I think you can substitute any female role (“my friend’s sister” or “Sisters” or “Grandmas” etc. and it would be equally offensive. Ugh.

    Matt March 24, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Late to the party and not a mom, but what the heck? One of the great confirming moments of my life occurred a few months ago when my son (who had his first child and my first grandchild last year)looked at me and said, “You know, you always told me I would never understand what it was like to have a child until I had one of my own. I’ll be damned if you weren’t right!”

    I actually already knew he had figured this out by the look on his face when he picked up his daughter in the hospital. But it was still cool hearing it from him.

    I submit that this may be one of those things that genuinely can never be explained to people who haven’t experienced it. It is beyond intellect, beyond interest, beyond empathy. It simply is.

    Sass E-mum March 24, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    I agree with your post. Before I had my child I wondered if there would be ‘enough’ love for my husband AND baby.

    As a childless friend of mine said, ‘durr, yes. there’s ALWAYS enough love. It doesn’t run out’.

    She was right.

    Remembering this conversation helps me to guard against being patronising to childless friends on the subject of love and how i see things ‘differently’ now I have a child.

    (With one notable exception: I still feel incredibly sad/angry/enraged/appalled at the ignorance of a childless broadcaster/politician who suggested the McCanns were making an unnecessary fuss about the loss of their daughter.)

    Stomper Girl March 26, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    What a fantastic post and combox discussion.

    Some of this discussion, for me anyway, centres on feelings of identity, and how you define yourself. The MILF debate is partly about blurring the old boundaries of virgin/mother/whore, and you could maybe read how much you react to the MILF ‘classification’ by how you feel about your place, or womens’ place in general, in regards to those boundaries.

    I struggle with being classified primarily as a mother, I got insulted when after I announced my pregnancy a friend started calling me Mum (I’m not your mother!!) and I have encouraged my kids to call me by my name not my job title, (which worried a surprising amount of people) so the whole MILF thing jangles my very bones, because if a guy fancies me then surely my parental status is irrelevant?

    In regards to the discussion in this post, I feel that mother/parenthood does change your life, and has a profound impact on your sense of identity, not to mention the way in which you perceive the world. Which may explain the *them and us* mentality that occasionally arises. A large part of parenthood for me has been about putting aside some – not all!- of my ego to help me realise that I am no longer the centre of my universe. But many people don’t need parenthood to realise this, and some people never do no matter how many children they have!

    Thanks for having this discussion!

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