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19 Mar

Our Motherhood, Our Selves

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.