The poet, feminist, and extraordinary American thinker Adrienne Rich died a few weeks ago. Because I still don’t know how to use Goodreads even though I’m registered and keep getting other people’s updates on it, I’m just going to tell you here that last week I read her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, and you should too. Here is why: “The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body. . . . We carry the imprint of this experience for life, even into our dying. Yet there has been a strange lack of material to help us understand it. We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood” (Rich 11).
Every single honest woman I know who has become a mother admits to feeling at one time or another utter befuddlement over her decision to have children when she is faced with the tiny, daily brutalities of the condition of maternity. While we all have mothers, none of us really thinks about motherhood until we ourselves are ready to take the running leap into it. And then one day when all the visitors have left and Daddy has used up the only two weeks of vacation time he’ll get for the rest of the year and gone back to work, we find ourselves alone with a sqawling newborn, having had not a single night of sleep in weeks (sometimes months, if we suffered from insomnia during pregnancy), isolated from all adult contact, losing clots of blood the size of golf balls, weeping from fatigue and the sensation of drowning if not from actual postpartum depression, and wondering why this ever seemed like a good idea. And it does not necessarily get easier.
I love my children. My god, do I love them. Fiercely and achingly, with the ferocity of a wild animal and the single-minded tenacity of a serial killer, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I will cut out your heart and eat it in front of your dying eyes if you even think about hurting them. When my daughter was an infant, I would put her to bed and then go into the next room and cry because I missed her so desperately that my arms felt empty and useless without her, like bags of meat hanging from a ceiling to cure until she awoke in the morning. And I still feel the rush of young love every time my son laces his little fingers into mine and presses our palms together to cross the street. No grown man has ever made me feel the way he does.
Still, when I read Rich’s words from a journal she kept as a young mother, it was as if someone gave me permission to exhale for the first time in almost eight years:
My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. (21)
“A function for which I was not fitted.” I was everyone’s best babysitter and favorite aunt. I was groomed for motherhood from the start of my life, surrounded by baby dolls and told repeatedly by my own mother, “You’re not a real woman until you have a baby.” But when the time came, I balked. It turned out I didn’t particularly enjoy being up all night and having someone need me for basic survival. I didn’t like feeling incompetent, and I hated not knowing what made them tick. I still do.
Is that selfishness, or is it common sense? In consenting to give up every little bit of my self, even my right to bathe regularly and uninterruptedly and sit down to eat meals, was I improving life for any of us–or was I just taking them all down with me? And what is a “real woman,” anyway? She’s not like me, I assume.
Rich writes: “[T]here always has been, and there remains, intense fear of the suggestion that women shall have the final say as to how our bodies are to be used. It is as if the suffering of the mother, the primary identification of woman as mother, were so necessary to the emotional grounding of human society that the mitigation, or removal, of that suffering, that identification, must be fought at every level, including the level of refusing to question it at all” (30).
Of Woman Born was first published in 1976. Some of its details are dated (such as the discussion of sterilization). But its core points remain as salient–and, sadly, as revolutionary–as ever. We have reached a place of societal derangement about women the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas called women’s nature “defective and misbegotten.” We are still getting the shaft on equal pay; we are still threatened with sub-par health care; we are still forced to justify birth control; and, for the love of everything holy, we are still being pitted against each other in every conceivable way, the only reasonable explanation for which is that we must remain distracted enough so that we never notice how short our leash is. Rich: “The absence of respect for women’s lives is written into the heart of male theological doctrine, into the structure of the patriarchal family, and into the very language of patriarchal ethics” (270). Indeed.
But choosing to become a parent is the ultimate act of optimism–quite possibly the ultimate act of subversion in a culture that wants you to lose faith. Once you have or adopt a child, giving up simply is not an option. Another life is tied to yours until one of you dies. You can think of it as an albatross or you can think of it as a buoy. Or you can find a whole new way to think of it, and then share that with your children and your grandchildren, passing down parts of your mind and body and soul and becoming a matriarch in the best sense of the word.
What is astonishing, what can give us enormous hope and belief in a future in which the lives of women and children shall be mended and rewoven by women’s hands, is all that we have managed to salvage, of ourselves, for our children, even within the destructiveness of the institution: the tenderness, the passion, the trust in our instincts, the evocation of a courage we did not know we owned, the detailed apprehension of another human existence, the full realization of the cost and precariousness of life. (Rich, 280)