I'm writing this on the outside possibility that there are other women who have struggled with the same experience but don't want to be "that woman" who feels so unspeakably neutral about her child. I'm writing in the sincere hope that I'm not alone.
My daughter, my cute, big-eyed, curly-haired daughter is nineteen months old and there are days when I wonder if I love her. Naturally this bothers me. After all, who wants to be the mom that has to admit that she may not love her child? Who wants to be that cold-hearted bitch who does not, perhaps cannot engage her own sweet progeny on the deepest emotional level? It's unnatural isn't it? Isn't the mother-child bond supposed to be the purest, strongest, most natural relational dynamic in the history of the human experience, even the experience of most nonhuman animals? Did my prenatal vitamins lack some fundamental compound?
Her daddy doesn't struggle with this. Often, as we're sitting around watching her play, he'll spontaneously blurt out: "Isn't she perfect!? She's so amazing!" He does this all the time and he means it every time. He's completely taken with her. He can't help but marvel. And it's not like his data is different. I look at the same little monkey knocking over block towers and laughing hysterically and I think: "Yeah. She's cool, she's really learning a lot." He's all exclamation points and I'm all periods. There are very few times when I look at her and am simply overwhelmed with the miracle of her life. Instead, I usually find myself doing a mental assessment of her well-being or reminding myself that it's nearly time she's fed or changed. I don't dislike her. I don't resent her. I just can't seem to elicit spontaneous gushes or overwhelming heart-felt emotion; at least not very often.
Annoyingly, it also seems to me that other women don't seem to struggle with this. Or if they do, they aren't 'fessing up to me. They talk about how "life-changing" it was to become a mother. I marvel at how little I've fundamentally changed; I had expected more but I find that I am exactly the same person I used to be except that now I have a kid. Some of the women I've met seem to be capable not only of gushing about their own experience of motherhood; they gush about what they imagine must be true of mine.
Particularly as a new mother, but even still, I'm occasionally accosted by well-meaning mothers and treated to the dewy-eyed question: Don't you just LOVE being a mom? I typically freeze and try to gauge how safe the situation really is. Does this stranger in the grocery store really want to hear that the whole "bonding" moment usually eludes me? Is she just looking for someone else to validate her own experience or is she really asking a question? Usually, I pick a response that doesn't feel inauthentic but gets me out of the direct traffic of platitudinous advice sure to squash me flat with its timeworn, guilt and anger-inducing effect. Still, the experience leaves me a little deflated. I yearn for the day when some stranger will say, "How's it going? It's hard isn't it?" I yearn for that honest companionship and the sense that I'm not the only one who feels like this…or rather that I'm not the only one who doesn't feel the way I think I should feel.
I have found some companionship in books like Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions, Faulkner Fox's Dispatches of a Not-So Perfect Life and Brett Paesel's Mommies who Drink. These women at least have helped clarify the difference between loving one's child and loving the job. And there is a difference. Who would really LOVE hand-washing and air-drying a poopy butt to speed recovery from a nasty diaper rash? Still, I do it because it's my child's poopy butt and it hurts her to have the nasty rash and I hate to see her hurt. Still, most of these writers do eventually profess a love that I wish I could write about so sincerely. They, in the midst of their other critiques and observations regarding the societal expectations of motherhood, nonetheless seem to be in touch with that elusive sense of uncontained connection to their offspring.
Maybe the reason underlying my struggle is that I'm what the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment (remember the MBTI from school or a "teambuilding" session at work?) calls a "Thinker." This shouldn't imply that I alone am capable of thinking or thought, but rather that when faced when a decision, my first reaction is to distance myself from the situation and try to analyze it objectively. My preference is unlike those on the opposite side of the spectrum -- the "Feelers" -- who find it most natural to immerse themselves in the values and emotions of the moment and experience it personally.
Or, maybe the reason is the sum total of all the conflicted messages I got about being a woman and being a mother. As a child, adult phenomena were often explained to me as "mommy things." At the time, of course, I didn't know that there was a different way to explain or understand grown-up things. The messaging only became clear when my mother explained to my young niece that after she lost her baby teeth, she'd her "get mommy teeth." My brother (her father) was appalled. Why not describe them as her "attorney teeth" or her "brain surgeon teeth?" I understood and agreed with his reaction, but had to admit that my own dismay was delayed due to the familiarity of the messaging. In fact, when I first heard him retell the story, I'd had little reaction because it echoed so exactly the language of my upbringing: "mommy teeth" sounded downright normal to me.
After I had time to think about it, I remembered that much of the mommy-messaging came from my mom who was and is one of those women who seemed to relish every minute of motherhood. For her, perhaps, adulthood really did seem to mean being a "mommy" and doing "mommy" things. At the same time, I remember sensing my father's pride and enthusiasm primarily when I was taking risks, fighting boys, being independent and erring on the brash and sassy side. In retrospect, I realize that my devoted mother taught me that (unlike my two brothers), adulthood meant "mommyhood." At the same time however, both parents encouraged me to develop the natural attributes typically considered unsuitable for the types of mommies I saw walking graciously from home to church.
I sometimes feel that the task of identifying the "real me" amidst all the layers of conflicting social conditioning is an exercise in futility. After all, how do you know where nurture starts and nature begins? However, if I had to pick, I'd say that the me that felt best at the time was brash boy fighting adventurer. I still like feeling like a badass; it energizes me. Long, uninterrupted stretches of nurturing leave me sapped and irritable.
I think the heart of the whole "love" problem lies in both my natural way of understanding the world and the tacit pressures that are put upon me as a women at the apogee of all the womanly roles -- motherhood, and perhaps particularly, early motherhood. I often feel as though we as mothers of young children are expected to simply click into the role and find that it's the coziest, surprisingly natural place for us even though it is new and demanding and requires emotional abilities some of us don't possess.
I have come to accept that there is a good possibility that I'm too cerebral to feel comfortable in the role that was modeled for me. I don't fully understand or experience any idea, feeling or event until it's been processed to a pulp. This predilection has served me professionally but cost me on the squishier side of relationships. The first time my boyfriend (now my husband) told me he loved me, my very first response was: "How do you know?" The kicker was that I was not trying to kill the mood; I liked the guy a lot, I was really excited that he loved me. I just wanted to make sure I understood what he meant. On some level, I suppose I wanted to be sure that his data were valid and relevant before accepting his conclusion.
Now I find myself going through the day-to-day motions of caring for and interacting with my daughter and wondering: Do I love her? How would I know? Does she sense the difference between her father's unaffected adoration and my caring but comparatively neutral response toward her? Will she grow up emotionally stunted as a result? Will she forever blame herself? Will she hate me because I was often incapable of unmitigated delight? We joke (or rather he jokes, I'm serious) about starting a therapy fund alongside her college fund.
In the short term, I've settled on trying to mentally divide up the tasks of mothering and the expected feelings of mothering, and I've concluded that because I faithfully execute the job of mothering my child, I do in fact love her. I remind myself that I want the best for her; I love to watch her learn; I get violent at the thought of someone hurting her; I'm excited and curious to find out who she is becoming. Today, I scooped poop out of her diaper and into tiny vials so the medical lab people could figure out why this damn diaper rash won't go away. Only love would willingly do such a thing.
This is the best I can do. I'm not withholding anything from her. I try to give all that I can give without sacrificing the conflicted core of who I am in the meantime. And that has to be enough for me… and her.
Mmo : November 2006