Lisa Radhika Kaul
I chose to become a “full-time” mother, because I saw it as the truest expression of my self at that time. Spurred by my desire to prove myself as “still useful” while opting out of the traditional workforce, I sought to legitimize my “time-out” by viewing motherhood as my career. Yet, I found a growing divide between myself as a mother, and myself as a person. I also continued to grapple with a body that seemed determined to betray me. I devoured the ample and ever growing literature on motherhood to find some answers or clues, and came to realise that I was not alone in feeling alienated either from my own self, the world around me, or from other mothers.
How did this split come about? Why did it happen? Who or what was responsible for it? My personality? Motherhood? The circumstances? Was this something permanent? Why did the satisfaction evaporate leaving behind cracks of discontentment that solidified around my relationship towards motherhood? After all, I had been satisfied being just a mother.
Sometime during the fourth year of my son’s life I began to gain perspective on why I had begun to draw a wedge between myself as a mother and myself as a person. The fault lay partly with the nature of motherhood, and partly with my personality and my version of motherhood.
To begin with, although I had chosen to make a career out of motherhood, I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions of what motherhood ought to be, or what it would look, smell and feel like. Neither did I have an image of the ideal mother. In retrospect I realise that I reduced motherhood to a corporeal embodiment distilled in the act of mothering. Hence, because motherhood meant a deep, unconditional responsibility for another life, it implied that I look after, provide for, nourish, sustain the bodily, intellectual and emotional needs of my son. Translated into action it meant being physically available to my son whenever he needed me – whether it was 2 am, or 2 pm. I cooked, I cleaned, I taught, I kissed, I bathed, I hugged, I played, I created, I learned, and found myself at a loss for words, for explanations. Having promised to always be there meant that I rarely caught a respite from mothering.
Despite my self-identification as a ‘full-time’ mother I was constantly surprised to find that I could not clock in and out on the job. Worse, I found that on the rare occasions that I was apart from my child, he, or rather my musings about him continued to occupy enough mental space to make the separation fictitious. There were no days off even when my husband was the primary caregiver. I now realise that my self-identification as a ‘full-time’ mother was in itself rife with contradictions because its counterpart ‘part-time’ mother doesn’t exist. Nobody can be a part-time mother. When a woman pursues a career outside the house she does not become a part-time mother. Rather she works two jobs. The pity and absurdity of my situation lay not in the fact that my sense of duty disallowed me from ‘clocking out’ of the job of mothering, or that I could never ‘switch-off’– but in that I had assumed that such would be a possibility. In turning mothering into a job I was constantly disappointed and frustrated by my inability to enjoy the perks that a normal job allows one, namely, time off. Motherhood – or at least my version of it- was more of a passion, at best a vocation.
I expected to receive some kind of recognition for all I did. One of my favourite ‘anecdotes as proof’ was the ascription of merit for my son’s rather eclectic vocabulary. Whenever people expressed surprise at a word usage they would immediately try to identify the source of learning. Invariably, they would deduce that his vocabulary was an obvious reflection of his father’s profession as a professor of philosophy; or they would attribute it to the school he attended; or on hearing my son’s name point to the obvious: that it was- but naturally – a reflection of his (father’s) genes! Nobody, save one father, saw me as a possible source. I had decided to view motherhood as a career in order to feel useful, to see myself as still doing something. Yet, in the eyes of the others, it was this very presentation of my self-as-a-mother that caused me to disintegrate into the woodwork. I became an impotent and mute bystander in my own production. However, it was not merely the lack of recognition for my work that rankled. Rather it was the loss of my agency as a person that I found shackling.
As my son began to come into his own, I realized that in making motherhood my career, I had, in fact, turned my child into my project.
In the early years of my son’s life, I had seen myself as “priming the canvas of his life.” Yet, as he grew, I couldn’t bring myself to “paint the picture” on the canvas. That was my son’s prerogative. This realization was reinforced by the fact that I was unable to distance myself emotionally from my son, and was beginning to see his failures and achievements as a personal reflection of myself.
I suppose I had internalised some quaint aspects of psycho-analytic theory of the sixties (Spock, 1968) and seventies (Brazelton, 1974) and had come to believe that ‘what happens to a child is largely a product of who the mother is and what she does or does not do.’ This sub-conscious prodding combined with the desire to succeed – the latter having been ingrained into all of us post-feminist girls – was a lethal combination. So, when my son was ‘diagnosed’ with an ‘issue’ I held myself responsible. Not only did I feel like I had failed him, but I also held myself responsible for ‘fixing’ the problem. In transforming motherhood, from a ‘relationship’ to a ‘career,’ I destroyed the source of joy that this state engenders.
There were other features endemic to motherhood that when combined with my personality combusted to drive a powerful wedge between my self as a person and my self as a mother.
One, I was unwilling to come to terms with the endless contradictions that motherhood stands for and spawns. To begin with, I had always thought of motherhood as the addition of a new life. Yet, the life of mothers is surrounded by forebodings of loss: sleep, bodily functions and allure, space, time for oneself, and ultimately the more loaded ‘self’, ‘identity’ ‘personhood’ and ‘freedom’ to name but a few. However, I was rather loathe to admit to this loss. I did not want to admit that motherhood had been a strain that had cost me dearly. It was not merely a personality quirk that propelled me to believe that I took to motherhood with effortless ease. Rather, I was uncomfortable to think of it as otherwise for a couple of reasons: I truly enjoyed being a mother, especially the infinite elasticity that motherhood brought to my conception of what ought to fill my days – browsing in a museum, crafting projects, painting, jumping in piles of autumnal leaves, building snow tunnels, hearing my son’s first words, seeing the world through a canopy of cherry blossoms, hearing my son sigh at the beauty of the world, – just doing the things that I could no longer afford to do as a responsible, somewhat rational adult. I did not want to think of my child as an imposition on my life. I invited him into it. He did not ask to be let in or to stay. I viewed my child as an integral part of me. To think of him as a strain was tantamount to saying that my own body was an unwelcome guest in my life.
Two, I wanted to excel at it. I don’t quite know why this desire is innate to motherhood, although I can think of several pop-psychological reasons for its existence, but its presence is clearly evidenced by the plethora of magazines and books that ‘coach’ one to be a better parent, as well as the overabundance of guilt that hovers above every mother, spurring her on to do the best by her child. When coupled with my perfectionist personality, this desire to excel transmuted into a lethal cocktail: I worried endlessly, I planned endlessly, and in the end became very weary and tired. I also began to question what being a successful mother meant, and for whom.
Three, there is a very sinister and malleable quality to motherhood that morphs seamlessly and moulds perfectly, albeit imperceptibly, into the mundane tasks of housekeeping. I found myself sliding mindlessly down the slippery and overwhelming slope of laundry, tidying, cleaning, and shopping. Not only did my act of mothering become hijacked by tasks of housekeeping, more importantly, this elision smothered the sense of wellbeing that motherhood has engendered and instead left behind a residue of smouldering resentment and disbelief at being reduced to a glorified maid. Each task of housekeeping became a loaded act that threw into relief the distance between whom I saw myself as being and the slave that I was becoming. Worse still, I didn’t feel like I ‘deserved’ help with the housekeeping since I wasn’t working outside the house. Surely, I ought to be able to keep my own house in order!
I also could not divorce my understanding of what motherhood was from how it ‘ought’ to be performed. In the early days I felt called upon to use prescriptive choices to define my ‘parenting style.’ Worse, I felt I had to ally myself in the battlefield of the ‘mommy wars.’ I was quick to see the inherent bankruptcy of the divisions as well as the chimerical quality of the supposed battlefield. The real danger, I realised, lay in falling prey to the traps of ‘mother-hood as martyrdom’ or ‘working- as-selfishness,’ the common tropes that explained the ‘choices’ that women made. Despite this awareness, I was astride the seesaw, trying to find the elusive balance between teetering above ground and being stuck on the ground.
It is a wonder that I did not manage to squeeze every last bit of joy out of parenting. Instead I continued to be somewhat flummoxed by motherhood, drawn as I was to it, as moth is to a candle. I remained at a loss to list or explain the exact content of motherhood, despite the overwhelming plethora of examples in cinema, art, and literature that define, expound, and tell us, what motherhood is. I was overwhelmed not only because there seemed to be so many different types (voluntary, involuntary, easily achieved, hard won) of motherhood, so many different trajectories (happiness, despair, satisfaction, frustration) that motherhood can take, so many different traits that seem to stand for or become representative of motherhood – kindness, patience, irrational irritability, unconditional love, so many different qualities (physical, emotional, psychological, economic, social) that mark motherhood, so many different actions that become symbolic of motherhood (looking after bodily needs, cleaning bodily functions, calming fears) but because I was (and still am) trying to grapple with the elusive and contradictory set of meanings that this term embodies and unfurls as I continue to live it. Motherhood made me feel incredibly happy, light-headed almost, but it also made me feel unbelievably tired. Its amoebaesque form threatened to engulf and swallow. I never got a respite from it. It was a 24 hour, seven days a week, 365 days a years job. And this business of being on-call continuously made me feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. I wondered where ‘I’ as a person ended, and where I as a mother began, or more potently, whether there was an ‘I’ in mother.
Next: Yes, there is an “I” in motherhood.
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