The formal setting of the dining room hushed to the question, “who is planning to stay home with their child?” No one raised a hand. In that awkward pause, I busied myself with my coffee cup. This was one of the last gatherings for the women of my senior class. The popular sociology professor, with her navy suit made weighty with shoulder pads, paused and waited to see if some brave, reluctant hands would rise. Nobody. “Let me back up. Who dreams of having children?” To this: just half of the room responded, but not me. Now I went back to my cheesecake, avoiding eye contact. The engaging and accomplished female professor railed about the unintended effect that this post-feminist generation would have on the children of the future. “Are we creating a generation of women who are ashamed to want motherhood?” She warned the room of young women. The moment obviously made an impression although I think I did grant her an unseen eye roll. Only twenty years later am I able to formulate an answer for her.
In that room in 1992, I was sure that I would leave my mark on the world – in the traditional male sense of the phrase. A political science major, I was taking a senior seminar on terrorism and writing papers on the Marxist dialectic. The feminist revolution had been won. I was leaving for a Peace Corps assignment in Thailand one month after graduation. I dreamed of being an international development worker, making important decisions to create world peace at big oval tables and jetting around the globe with extension pages in my passport.
My father raised me, after my own mother died when I was eight. He would often comment under his breath about the PTA moms who had nothing better to do than meddle and gossip. My father’s mother, one of my most important and involved role models, was a frustrated, college-educated SAHM and I saw the world through the lens of her experience. During the depression in Canada, there was only one paying job allowed per household, so she was forced to quit her job as an actuary. Perhaps it was my father’s outspoken beliefs, the Marlo Thomas “Free to be You and Me” record that hijacked my subconscious, or my own innate belief. But somehow, the 21 year-old me felt that motherhood was one dimensional and petty, that all moms did nothing more than worry about child-rearing, nutrition and household cleaning supplies – a life to be avoided.
One of the perks of being in my 40’s is that time and distance distill my life in chapters while themes loop back on themselves with surprise twists. Perhaps embracing motherhood is a way of wanting the presence of a mother, the way that many of us who were raised in the seventies and eighties were guilted out of wanting. My feminine identity has evolved and traveled into and through my fears of definition. You can be a mother and a feminist, I yell back to the younger me. Motherhood is an act of bravery as courageous as being a Peace Corps volunteer, and there are more important decisions made around oval tables than I ever made in my paying job. And yet our ancestral inheritance is a bitch to bear.
Motherhood suddenly made sense when I found myself in love with a grown-up hippy like myself. We were solid and in love. And love made me greedy for more love – the love that knits things and creates a home. I had been the expat development worker in Southeast Asia. I actually did have extension pages added to my passport. I had been to grad school and had found my dream job creating programming for international student programs. Then I met Will when I was 32. Sometimes our heads make weighty decisions by use of linear logic or dogmatic thinking and sometimes, other decisions are made because we simply and directly know by tapping into our feminine intuition.
In 2013, as I am heating up soup for my daughter’s princess thermos, I ask, “Lorna, what kind of fruit do you want in your lunch today?”
“But honey, pears get smushed. How about an apple? They’re tougher.” I suggest, reminding myself not to ask such open-ended questions.
“Camilla’s mom puts her pears in a pear sweater.”
“A pear sweater. She knits them. I want a pear sweater.”
WTF? Camilla’s mom knit a pear sweater? Yes, I knit and yes a quick tube would be easy to create but something bubbles up from within. I draw a feminist line in the sand. I don’t make those, won’t wash those, won’t associate myself with those. I do so many random crafty things, and I do own a glue gun, but pear sweaters made my mind jump back to the young woman who wanted to be an international diplomat. Somehow the act of kowtowing to the competitive lunch packing going on around me was the last straw on the camel’s back.
“What, mom? It’s not hard. Is it?”
“Your mommy doesn’t knit pear cozies, honey. I’m sorry. It’s just the mom you got.”
Lorna moved on from the conversation. To her pear sweaters were the trend of the moment, but for me, it hung over my head for months, years.
My first daughter, Lorna, was born at 32 week’s gestation. That’s 8 weeks early and she weighed less than 4 pounds. She spent 3 weeks in the NICU gaining weight through a feeding tube and eventually learning to take a bottle. The insurance company then abruptly felt that it was time for her to come home and so in November – when most contagion was really ramping up – at just 4.5 pounds, she came home hooked to an oxygen tank and a sleep apnea alarm. We lived at 8400 ft. and I was quarantined. If she got the flu, she could die, the doctors warned. The best medicine: breast milk. There is something in the milk of moms whose babies are born early that pharmaceuticals cannot replace. From some hidden corner of my DNA, I turned animal. My being clicked into a one-way track: “must protect baby” mode. I made myself leave the house every ten days. The “me” in me, went far away. It was probably the most egoless and unselfish year of my life.
I had been pumping and giving her breast milk in a bottle in 3-hour cycles for two months before she could breastfeed. Preemies can’t breastfeed until they are close to term. I was a machine, not knowing if it was day or night: wake baby, change baby, feed baby, record ounces ingested, burp baby, rock baby to sleep, wash pump parts, dry pump parts, laundry, pump milk, REPEAT. My husband worked 60 plus hours per week and traveled often. So after she was born, I quit my hard-won job teaching at a small Buddhist University (read: not a high salary). Lorna required advanced childcare and I was terrified to leave her with a sitter, terrified to bring home germs and she needed my medicinal milk. This was not a casual decision, but a matter of life and death. I still tell people that my pay as a teacher would never cover the cost of childcare, so I became a SAHM. It’s a true story, but it’s also the story I tell myself. To preserve my ego, these unconscious taglines can abnegate responsibility for the choice I made. It was hard to own the fact that I wanted to be a mom, desperately wanted to be her mom. When I could really own that I wanted to quit my job and focus on her, I also had to let in the wanting of my mother who might have survived to care for me all those years ago.
My three children attend a Waldorf school in Boulder, Colorado. Waldorf parenting is like advanced-placement parenting, the natural extension of the intense mothering I did for Lorna. The bar is set high. It’s for moms who knit pear sweaters and share stories of drug-free water births while drinking nettle tea from a mason jar. When your children go to a Waldorf school, you agree not to let them watch screens (TV, iPad, phones), nor engage in competitive sports before 3rd grade. You limit summer camps, are encouraged to sew simple Halloween costumes, home cook for your child and as a result, parenting turns into a full-time job. Most days I love the path I’ve chosen and some days, when I’m in a mood, I feel it’s unhealthy self-flagellation and forces me back to the limited life of my grandmother. I’ve had dreams in which Cady Stanton, is standing in my kitchen with her marching sash slung across her body and an expression of exasperation on her face. But this kind of mothering spoke to my sense of duty, to my terrified mothering marathon mentality, to the idea of “mother” as a verb. And this advanced mothering has also mothered me in ways that were needed…
My own mother was a hippie who wore jean skirts and made yogurt on top of our transistor radio. We made our own peanut butter, sewed wrap skirts and held puppet shows for the neighborhood with a found refrigerator box. It felt as though she died abruptly although her cancer was a constant in my childhood. And then I was fathered. He did it well and with love, yet sometimes we ate dinner at Baskin Robbins. By nine years old, I budgeted my clothing allowance, made my breakfast, packed my lunch (when I remembered) and got myself to school on my bicycle before the second tardy bell. But fathering makes you tough and accomplished and what I’ve needed is the mothering to make me soft and accepting.
When you actually become a mother, you gain access to this cool tribe of women. It was the first time, I felt like a true, merited member of my gender. My lactation consultant, Darcy Kamin, saw my stress and exhaustion and she quite directly ordered me to lie down. She made me some nettle tea in a mason jar, rubbed my feet, my scalp and then just rocked my baby and sang me lullabies until I entered a very happy place. I had never before felt so cared for by another human being. Why was my 21 year-old self bashing this beautiful stuff? I’d never given myself permission to overtly want this. Perhaps my unconscious self didn’t want to remember that my own mother had cared for me like this. I began to lean into being a person who just might care for someone so intensely that a pear sweater wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Apparently, there are mommy wars. I scan articles in magazines about the guilt and jealousy between the SAHM and the working moms. Both sides of the spectrum feel shame. Both argue the difficulty and challenges with balance. I didn’t labor over my life choice, but rather changed my life to accommodate a crisis. Sometimes life has a sense of humor. I was thrown into a karmic crucible and emerged a Waldorf PTA mom. Me: the one who looked down on such women in my youth. I know that I am lucky to have the resources to stay home with my kids. And yet, a part of me wishes that the decision was made for me. Given my husband’s job responsibilities and travel commitments, I would have needed to hand most of the parenting over to a nanny or full-day childcare. And I wasn’t willing to do that. I know I’m privileged and some days I wish I weren’t. Some days as I fold six loads of laundry, I feel that all those years of education were wasted.
But really, the feminist movement gave us a choice. My bristling at the pear sweater demand was my own way of exerting my choice amidst the very traditional female world I found myself, of knitting together my younger self and my frustrated grandmother. I pulled all-nighters sewing Halloween costumes but that short knitting project was a way of reclaiming my identity – although I couldn’t see it at the time. We all need to decide how to spend our hours. I needed to be schooled by the subconscious judgment I had around mothers and all feminine identities. Maybe today’s covert expectation is that we should do it all and be it all: knit pear sweaters at business meetings, can peaches on the weekends after yoga class and never miss a chance to volunteer in the classroom while having a fulfilling career. Now, that’s oppressive.
Lorna is now eleven, and her two younger siblings are seven and eight. I feel a bit like I’m cresting a hill and can finally take stock of my surroundings. The emergency is over. My youngest is in his first year of full day of school and they are all gaining a certain independence that forces my hand into taking stock of me, the woman who still hears echoes of the girl; the one who is trying to regain her own center and reclaim a middle ground. How did I get here? I look forward to the next chapter of life when I might hope to consciously choose my feminine identity with neither crisis, nor guilt nor judgment. The paths aren’t clear. The paradigm shift is being born by women making individual choices that work for them, not a class of people. My generation is working out the binary thinking of motherhood as a static definition.
If I could answer the sociology professor from so long ago, I would tell her that yes, I was afraid to want motherhood, and that I still feel an obligation to honor the privileges of my hard-won options. And yet, like women from the beginning of time, I will wake up after a two hour night’s rest and write “I love you” on a sticky note inside their lunch boxes. And I also see that the cliché is true: the days are long and the years are short. There are more chapters ahead.
Today, my robust, ex-preemie, twelve year-old Lorna and I are shopping at Whole Foods. She is helping me pick out fruit for lunches this week. Pears are in season, I tell her. It really would take me all of 2 hours to knit the damn sweater, I think. I have the bandwidth now to not freak out at the thought. Maybe I have the self-posession to be the pear-sweater-kind-of-mom after all.
“Pears are just the kind of fruit you eat at home,” she says.
About the Author
Annika Paradise is a freelance writer from Boulder, Colorado who writes about adventure in all its forms – from motherhood to trekking above 18,000 feet. Her work has appeared in Brainchild Magazine, upcoming in Outpost magazine, The Bark and various blogs about town including Emerging Women. Clips are available at annikaparadise.com