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What could be more relevant to the project of how to live a meaningful than the very crucible of life itself.
This week my son turned one. In the last year, every time motherhood or parenting has made its way into my writing in this newsletter, it’s come with some trepidation on my part.
Part of the reason for that hesitation is good old-fashioned internalized misogyny. “You don’t want to be one of those female writers that turns into a mommy blogger as soon as they have a kid!” the stupid voice says. Another part of it is a genuine desire to stay true to the themes of this newsletter, and not let it devolve into my many strong opinions on the various absurdities of modern parenting. (I’m looking at you, fucking baby-led weaning.)
But today I want to write about motherhood, and do so unabashedly. For what could be more relevant to the project of how to live a meaningful life in our chaotic era than the very crucible of life itself: the act of nurturing a human through the first 365 days on earth. It is the foundation, the base layer, the soil from which a human being’s assumptions about the world grows. As the mother of an infant, you are less a distinct person, and more a habitat for that growth.
I read somewhere that your relationship with your child can and should be thought of as distinct from your relationship to mothering, and I’ve clung to the idea ever since. Because my relationship to my child is simple: He is pretty much perfect and, from what I can tell, knows exactly what he needs to thrive. While sometimes I doubt following his lead and try to complicate or manipulate things to go my way, everything tends to flow easier when Dan and I trust him to show us the best way forward. Watching him grow and laugh and exist in the world is nothing but a distinct pleasure.
But my relationship to mothering is complicated, because, well, how could it not be? Mothering is often said to be a radicalizing experience, especially for card-carrying feminists. And in that vein, I feel profoundly let down by a lot of the 2010s feminist ideas that I ingested online in my twenties. Many of these ideas are completely discordant with what I now know to be the biological demands and breathtaking indignities of motherhood. It’s almost as if the twenty-somethings espousing these ideas on Twitter were not actually birthing and raising kids at the same time. (I should know, because I was one of them.)
My biggest frustration, which I’m certain is neither new nor original, is the disconnect between what the experience of mothering in a society that genuinely does not give a shit about mothers is actually like, versus how we are forced to talk about and cos-play it in the world.
Take the way we talk about postpartum depression, or as its called in the UK, postnatal depression. It’s framed as some biochemical affliction that affects as many as one-in-eight women, waiting to pounce on them as soon as they are discharged from hospital. We’re told it’s a threat that needs to be detected early so it can be diagnosed, prescribed, and treated. And yet, while medication can help (I took it while I was pregnant and in the few months after birth), what actually needs to be diagnosed and treated is the society in which motherhood takes place.
Imagine you walked into a doctor or therapist’s office and said after experiencing a major physical trauma in the last year, you never had time to recover and still aren’t sleeping much at all. You’ve lost your professional identity, feel isolated from your prior friends, have limited time for basic tasks like eating and showering — let alone hobbies or self actualization. Oh, and your job description is defined by putting your own needs second 24 hours per day, seven days a week, while elbow-deep in bodily fluids. You also have little help you don’t have to pay for, because most everyone you know is either too busy working and raising their own kids or lives far away. That doctor would say, “Of course you’re depressed, no one should live like that.”
And yet that is how early motherhood looks for the vast majority of women I know. Postpartum depression isn’t some disease or mental condition — it’s a rational response to the society we’re living in. This is simply not how we were supposed to raise babies.
While that narrative is slowly, thankfully becoming more prominent, the main place I see it is on my Instagram Explore page, sandwiched in between content idealizing motherhood and depicting perfect infant morning routines. (It’s almost as if the algorithm is trying to figure out which side I’m on.) As the author Rachel Yoder said in this interview about her singular and incredible book Nightbitch, “Motherhood has been so sanitized — pastels?! ruffles?! flowers?! what the fuck?? — but it is, from the very start, a literal mess of shit and blood.”
We should be trading war stories, comparing flesh wounds, and yet all anyone ever asks me is what baby classes and groups I take him to. When I took him to one such class early on, someone asked me, with a delirious smile plastered on their face: “So, are you just loving it?” I never went back.
But where I have found connection, solace, and solidarity is in other women writing about motherhood. I joked to Dan the other day that the most promising mom friends I’ve made are the subjects of the book I was reading, The Baby and the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Body Problem by Julie Phillips.
Artists and writers like Alice Neel, Audre Lorde, Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin. All of these women approached the project of placing creativity alongside motherhood in different ways. Some of them did things that are unspeakable by modern standards: abandoned their kids, checked out of motherhood so they could write or create, or in the somewhat dubious legend of Alice Neel, put her baby on the fire escape so she could finish her paintings.
While I wouldn’t do those things, I now understand how women might get to a point where they would. They didn’t have reliable birth control, if any. Abortions were inaccessible and often botched. Their baby daddys left them whenever it got inconvenient. Because of all that, they were effectively forced to have babies against their will, often multiple times in a lifetime, at the expense of their art and selfhood and lives. No one gave a shit if they never had a job, let alone a career, ever again. They didn’t even have disposable diapers! There was no way out!
In the aforementioned Nightbitch, the protagonist — a stay-at-home mom who’s given up her art career and has a husband who is away Monday to Friday— turns into a feral dog at night. It makes perfect sense. So much of early motherhood reduces you to your animal self. And yet, to the outside world, once your baby hits roughly 12 weeks of age, you must commence functioning like a normal human, or at least pretend to.
I am sure many people have seen me as doing “well” over the past year — getting back to work, working out, getting my baby into childcare, writing words, reading books. But the truth is I am doing well at least as often as I am definitely not doing well, for all the reasons described in this essay. While getting back to work has helped me regain some sanity and autonomy, it’s also a necessity when the maximum monthly maternity allowance given to self-employed people is laughable compared to the cost of living, which just keeps rising.
And so, the urge to retreat fully into animal mode, to not have to perform capitalism while also doing the primal work of motherhood, is deeply appealing. To just roll around, as a dog would, in the blood and guts and lactation and sticky oatmeal of it all. To not even try to shower it off in the morning to put on a brave face for nursery drop-off.
I feel thrilled by the writing I read from other mothers, delighted by their blood-and-guts honesty, wishing I could find more of that in my own life with the mom friends I’m supposed to be finding. I have a couple of times. From a new therapist who, in our sessions, shared stories from her early days as a mom to her now two-and-a-half year old daughter — stories that finally felt as dark and grim as some of my own. And from my friend who sent me screenshots of her texts to friends when she was going through a similar period. The texts were predictably horrifying, and the fact that she had saved them as proof-of-life for all that she’d been through made perfect sense to me. She was saying: “I have been there. I know where you are. I survived.” It helped.
Other than my perfect, smiling boy, this is what I’m most grateful that motherhood has given me. This feeling of connection, understanding, compassion, and solidarity with women who have done this work — this unbelievable work — since the literal beginning of time.
The Guardian’s Republic of Parenting columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett said it perfectly: “Becoming a mother — and giving birth — has enhanced my feelings of solidarity with other women. It is a solidarity that is physical, intellectual, emotional and political. It is also historical. I feel empathy with women who lived and died many centuries before I even existed. And that has expanded my heart and my mind.”
Which brings me back to where I started this, the reason this topic is in fact universal, foundational, and urgent. There are all kinds of ways we address this problem, from the structural, to the cultural, to the interpersonal. But I think it starts by remembering that the world we make for new mothers is also the world we make for their children, the habitat in which they will develop and turn into the adults we all have to live amongst.
It matters to all of us — whether we have kids or don’t — because when we let down moms, we let down everyone. I can’t believe I didn’t see this before, and it will inform everything I am and everything I do in the world from now on.
What Do We Do Now That We're Here? is a publication that explores the most sane way to live now. All content is free to read, but becoming a paid subscriber helps give me the time to explore these themes
Things I’ve enjoyed reading
In light of the above, some of the Substackers writing about motherhood that I’ve loved the most are:; ; .
“The doom spiral of cultural pessimism can best be combated by […] encountering human beings in the kind of real-life social situations where change, however small or modest in scale, is possible.” [The Atlantic]
Gentrification experienced by the five senses. [Making a Neighborhood]
“I think that the desire to write comes from the constant feeling of imbalance in our lives and that writing, itself, is a way of seeking balance.” [Humor Me]
Travel is seen as an almost universally positive, enriching part of life. What if that’s wrong? [New Yorker]
Three fun things: I want to make all of these summer pasta recipes; a perfect 10 minute yoga flow for when you can’t be bothered to stand up; a spine-tingling poem about earthworms (thank you to the reader who sent this to me!)
Things I’ve enjoyed listening to
A conversation on the promise and practicalities of communal living. This really feels like it’s part of the antidote to much of what the essay above explores. [The Ezra Klein Show]
“Joy is fundamentally a practice of connection […] And then that awareness of connection is what makes us want to love and heal and support each other. So joy is connected to saving the world.” Listening to Ross Gay speak is a pretty good way to turn a bad attitude around. [We Can Do Hard Things]
If you need a podcast to binge while you’re on a long summer train/plane/car ride, Scamanda — about a mega-church going white lady who faked a lucrative cancer scam — will do the trick. [Scamanda]
In case you missed it
I added a new little format to this newsletter earlier this month: A deeper dive into a piece of media (article, book, podcast) I can’t stop thinking about. If you missed the first one about the absurdity of trying to monetize compost, you can read it below.
“The ability to ask beautiful questions — often in very un-beautiful moments — is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.” —David Whyte
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