You’re never more aware of how much drudgery is involved in the work of mothering than when you’re doing that work while suffering from a bad cold or flu or some such viral misery as makes your head pound and your lungs ache and your throat burn. You lay in a fetal curl, hacking miserably, wishing for sleep, unconsciousness, a coma, anything to take you away from your discomfort, until you hear the baby stir and you must rise to nurse and soothe and nurse and soothe and nurse and soothe, which you do, of course, hoping that he’ll settle enough to lay beside you and amuse himself with rattles and soothers while you rest your tired head but of course he does not do that because his diaper is full to bursting and so you must rise, again, and deal with the shit-soaked diaper and damp pajamas and that’s fine because once you’ve done that you can lay back down unless, of course, the inevitable cry comes from the other room – Mommy I got poo I need to go to the toilet – in which case there’s another cycle of shit and damp to deal with and if you’re really lucky it just means wiping a bum and overseeing some toilet-flushing and hand-washing but if not – and let’s be honest here, at this point your luck is about as reliable as sub-prime mortgage lending – it’s going to mean tossing the three-year old in the bath and disinfecting all visible surfaces because when she says I got poo she very probably means it in the Lopburi monkey sense of I got poo in my hands and that just never ends well and certainly does not end with you tucked cozily in bed with a hot lemon drink and a Nyquil buzz. Not, at least, for some very long hours yet to come, if they ever come at all.
Under these circumstances, the work of motherhood seems like a bad scam, like some multi-level marketing scheme that someone tricked you into by promising wealth and glamor and a pink Lincoln Continental but that just ended up being a whole lot of catalogue-pushing and bad kitchen parties. (This is a bad analogy, really, because, no matter hard motherhood can be it at least offers its rewards up front – you get your Top Performer Bonus, your pink Lincoln Continental, right at the outset in the form of your beautiful children, and that gift, the gift of their loveliness, just keeps expanding regardless of how well you sell the program – Motherhood: Your Key To Bliss!™ – and so what if they crap a lot? Still, on days like these, days when you’re tired/sick/desperately-in-need-of-a-day-off, it’s hard to remember how or why it was that you agreed to do this work.)
I love my children. I love being a mother. I love, even, the condition of motherhood, the state of things whereby I am a mother, down to my bones, the state of things whereby my entire physical being strains to care for and love my children, whereby my very biology demands my commitment to these creatures who run and laugh and hug and kiss and shriek and hurl poo. What I do not love so much is the work. I do not love the diapers, the toilet-training, the cajoling, the cleaning, the washing, the arguing, the bargaining (okay, sometimes I like the bargaining – not even the most sophisticated trial lawyer could keep me to my wits the way my preschooler does when she wants something -“Mommy,” she says, “let’s make a PROBLEM”, meaning a deal, and then proceeds to offer to eat her veggies in exchange for three marshmallows, which upon negotiation becomes a bargain of one carrot for one marshmallow or two broccoli for one marshmallow or maybe three marshmallows for two carrots and a firm commitment to go straight to bed after bath) the screaming, the squirming, the wiping, the endless, endless wiping… and I love them all the less when every fiber of my being is begging to curl up under the blankets with some Vicks VapoRub and retreat into mentholated silence.
I know why this is. On an ordinary day – on a well-rested day, on a day when my spirits are up and my energy is good – the drudgery of motherhood is a minor irritant, a reasonable price to pay for the deep satisfaction of being surrounded by such love, the true pleasure of being witness to such beauty. The giggles of my baby boy, the peals of laughter from my little girl – these are ample recompense for the poopy diapers and the spilled milk and the temper tantrums. But I’ve had, of late, little energy for such pleasures, and so although I smile through the headache and the hacking cough at the giggles and the hugs and the malapropisms, I find that I would much rather have a few hours alone with the Nyquil than wrestle the baby (however snuggly and adorable he is) or hear another disquisition on the superiority of Dora to Fifi The Flowertot.
Does disliking the work of motherhood make one a bad mother? My impulse is to say, of course not – one can love being a mother, being mother to one’s children, without loving all of the tasks that usually attend that role. I loved being an academic, but I didn’t enjoy everything that went with that territory. But then again, I quit the academy for precisely that reason – I didn’t love everything about it, I didn’t love it enough to take the bad with the good. And I figured that if I didn’t love it enough, I wouldn’t be good enough. So I quit. I quit, in part, because I loved motherhood and writing more, but still – the quitting was in the offing long before motherhood came along, and the quitting stemmed from the fact that I did not love the work enough.
I’ve already said – the diapers are more than amply made up for by the joy my children bring to me. I love my children – I adore my children – and I love mothering my children. But there are some things that I don’t so much love about the work of motherhood. There are quite a few things, actually. And so when I think about, say, the prospect of having more children, I pause. (I pause, actually, and say to myself, HELL NO, but then when someone asks me seriously, really seriously, whether this is it, no more children, I pause again, because I can’t quite wrap my around making that HELL NO official. Which, if that sounds confused: YES, I KNOW.)
Do you have to love it, all of it – or at least like it, all of it – to do it well? Or is just loving your children enough?