Lisa Radhika Kaul
In the early days of my son’s life, the only shadows in our land of eternal sunshine (in England!) were cast by an array of outsiders who could not contain their disappointment, disapproval, and disdain of my decision to ‘opt out.’ An older male colleague remarked to me that he couldn’t understand why women with promising futures often ‘lost’ their ‘focus’ after giving birth. Then there was hostility from the ‘working’ women who felt that I was letting them (and all womankind) down by becoming another statistic in support of the unreliability of female employees. There was also condescension from both men and women at my inability to juggle a career and a family: didn’t I know that women could finally have it all? And then there were the accusations: How could I squander all the years of training in graduate school that I had received? Didn’t I owe it to myself, to womankind, and to all those who had invested in me to work? And finally there was considerable bewilderment: why would I, an ostensibly ‘bright’ and educated woman, choose to lead an unfulfilling, inane, menial life – filled with tedious, mind-numbing chores, and bereft of ‘adult’ company and intellectual stimulation. Surely, I was wasting my talents and selling myself short. How could I not see – as even Ruby Tuesday did – that in relinquishing my dreams of a career I would lose my mind.
Despite the satisfaction I found in being with my son, the mental stimulation I found in trying to teach him things, the delight I found in having to re-discover my entire world and everything in it, I could not shut my ears to the cacophony of the outside voices. I found three assertions about motherhood particularly patronising and rebelled against their implications:
One, motherhood, could not be treated as a legitimate or important enough enterprise to derail a chosen career track. Women like me – who bore the marks of a certain privilege and education, were meant to contribute to the common good, and be harbingers of change – could not afford to ‘stay at home’ and waste our ‘Phd’s wiping butts.’ In other words, motherhood could at best be an unpleasant diversion at the end of the day, or another ‘achievement’ in a long list of qualifications, but it was an appendage to who we really are. It could never represent us in toto.
Two, the task of motherhood did not merit or utilise my expansive skill (which I suppose were those bestowed by a graduate education).
Three, ‘full-time’ (as if it can ever be part-time) motherhood was somehow morally irresponsible, indulgent, and self-destructive.
My early sense of motherhood was shaped and perhaps constructed against these external forces. Partly in response to and partly as a result of my personality, my version of motherhood – at least in those early days – became a sort of crusade. I rebelled against the idea that ‘stay-at-home-motherhood’ is anti-feminist and regressive. I railed that women ought to have the right to choose and that motherhood could in fact be a ‘legitimate occupation.’ Unsurprisingly, I started identifying myself in these terms and would often introduce myself as ‘in the employ of a two year old corporation called N—– Inc.’ And since my erstwhile business had been in education, I saw myself as an educator of my child and thereby utilizing my talents and the resources that had been invested in me. And as for ‘myself’: I felt that I had finally found myself, or at least found my vocation. I couldn’t help but rubbish the various ‘truths’ about motherhood because I felt that they did not apply to me. Furthermore, these truths seemed to be inconsistent: how is it that the act of taking time off to discover oneself is seen as courageous and laudable, but accusatory fingers are waggled at women who choose to take the time to be mothers? Why is motherhood treated as a part-time, and easily dispensable job? How is it that we frown at a doctor who moonlights but applaud a parent who does the same? Motherhood was my way of taking time off, of discovering who I am, what I wanted to become. It allowed me to get off the treadmill I was on, even if it meant hopping onto another treadmill. Let me add here that I did not look askance at those women who chose to or were forced to work outside the house. I merely wanted the option of pursuing motherhood as a career.
So I devoted myself heart and soul to raising my child, never attempting to carve out any time for my personal self. I worked hard at being a mother because I wanted to be successful at it. I saw myself as priming the canvas that my child would use to draw his life on. This was an investment. This was perhaps my most important contribution to posterity, or at least to another generation. But like other over-zealous careerists I pulled inhuman hours and began to burn out. Unsurprisingly my body revolted by the end of the year, and a couple of months later I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This coincided with a move to a new country, one that was far less supportive of the entire parenting business and which opened up a new slew of questions.
By the time my son was two years old I came to feel like I was floating aboard a space ship called motherhood which was orbiting around a planet that seemed suspiciously like my ‘true’ self. Finding a suitable mode of introduction for my self became a terrifying and angst-inducing task. I began to insert a past life: ‘In my other life I used to be an anthropologist;’ ‘I trained as an anthropologist, but I’m currently employed by that two year old;’ ‘I am a social anthropologist. I chose to resign from my job in order to be with my son.’ All these modes sounded both defensive and banal to my ears especially as they tried to drown out the growing clamour that yelled: how could the ‘real me’ be just a mother? I hovered in a metaphorical purgatory, belonging to no one ‘camp’: listening to the playground chatter of women who were content to ‘be home with their kids’ sounded suspiciously like the last nail being hammered into my coffin. Yet, I felt equally lost navigating talk of logistics, care and careers. A somewhat familiar refrain of ‘this is not who I am’ played endlessly through my head. Like a bricoleur, I tried to cobble together my old life in an attempt to create a blueprint of the person that I was. But tethered and suspended as I was, I was unable to carve a path out of the morass. I endlessly permuted and computed sunnier possibilities, but hampered as I was by my illness, and by the sheer magnitude of my responsibilities as a mother, could not reach them. Motherhood became a conundrum to me: was this the same state that had engendered such bliss? I was still as much in love with my son, if not more. Yet, spurred or perhaps conditioned by the needs of a little child, I began to see everything in black and white. I, who had never believed in the tyranny of categories or in their ability to contain, began dividing my world and my self into what seemed like two, neat, immutable, possibly antithetical and irreconcileable categories: motherhood and I. Put simply, I began to wonder whether I could be a mother and still be ‘me.’ Or whether there was something endemic to motherhood that causes one to lose ones sense of self?
Next: How did this split come about? Why did it happen? Who or what was responsible for it? My personality? The circumstances? Motherhood? Was this something permanent? Why did the satisfaction evaporate leaving behind cracks of discontentment that solidified around my relationship towards motherhood? What did this split really stand for? After all I had been satisfied being just a mother.
But before that, a guest post that fits right in: “There’s a yoga pose for that”
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