On Mothering: A Response to The School for Good Mothers

I remember the very early days of motherhood as endless and exhausting. I had this gorgeous baby that I’d worked so hard to bring Earthside. And she had so. many. needs. She was an easy baby, I suppose. As if that is even a thing. But it is humbling and terrifying to realize that much of your life is suddenly consumed by keeping a tiny life going. On day 3 of her life, I stood in the shower and cried, sure I would never do anything other than feed her again. Ever.

I was a stay-at-home mom–at great financial sacrifice for us. So, how could I complain? I had chosen this. No one wanted to hear that playing with an infant constantly isn’t intellectually stimulating. That I felt like my very ability to think critically, to reason, to argue was crumbling daily. I was so lonely, so desperate for adult interaction, I ached. But all around me, people were telling me to enjoy every minute. 

I can’t imagine anything more shame-inducing to say to a mother of an infant (or toddler). 

Mothers held to a standard of quasi-sainthood. Is the toddler melting down during the trip to Target you’ve been looking forward to all day (because you don’t have a whole lot to look forward to right now)? No matter. A mother should be calm, ready to drop everything she is doing, to suppress everything she feels to help her toddler process emotions. Mothers are expected to remain calm when chaos is unfolding all around them–screaming, crying, tiny fists flailing–or better yet, to be able to head chaos off before it even occurs. And if you have to tuck said toddler under your arm like a football and march out of Target while she kicks and screams, half the patronage will cheer you while the other half judges you. Silently, of course.

Mothers are expected to anticipate needs, not only snack and diaper needs, but emotional needs regarding friends, preschool, potty-training, time-outs. Mothers are expected to avoid–at all cost–collapsing into a puddle of tears on the linoleum floor because their toddler said something horribly nasty and hurt their feelings. 

I did not enjoy every minute of my daughter’s babyhood or toddlerdom. She was beautiful and perfect. And it was the hardest time of my life. I’m an alcoholic in recovery–so I’ve dealt with some shit. But nothing compared to being the mother of a tiny human. It is a completely thankless job. And so many people are waiting in the wings with criticism, suggestions, unhelpful advice. 

I just finished listening to the powerful novel The School for Good Mothers, which is how I ended up revisiting this time in my life. I didn’t want to finish the book–because I couldn’t bear to see what fresh horror would unfold at the end. It isn’t a horror novel, by the way. It’s dystopian. And futuristic. A bit sci-fi-ish. But all set as if it were unfolding down the street from you. Or maybe someone you know. Someone who had one very bad day.

It’s about motherhood. And the way modern motherhood is policed–by the state (in particular for women of color), by other mothers, by societal expectations. It’s about being a bad mother (being human) and learning to be good (relinquishing everything in service to motherhood). Jessamine Chan takes every subtle message women receive as mothers and blows them up into the fantastic and monstrous. I found myself laughing out loud (but often it was a mirthless laugh of knowing), being horrified, nodding, and insisting my partner listen to at least parts of the book. Because I want him to understand that modern motherhood is a set up, a game we cannot win.

None of this has anything to do with our children. Motherhood (the institution) and mothering (the practice of loving your kid in fallible, real ways) are different. Chan does an expert job in depicting “good intentions: by the state going wildly awry, holding mothers to standards that are often racist, always misogynistic (fathers get off easy in the book). There is an obliteration of privacy, a blurring of the line between reality and artificial-intelligence-driven-sanity-bending-teaching-methods. There is no support for mothers in this fictional world, only judgment, criticism, and the very real possibility of making a human mistake and losing their children for good.

I’ve not encountered a more painful, more accurate depiction of motherhood (especially of infants & toddlers) in a long time. Maybe ever. This book slayed me. It was almost emotionally impossible to manage. And it was the most important book I’ve read in a while.

Several times, during my reading, I thought back to the foster care training I took years ago. The State of Florida emphasized over and over again that reunification with the birth parents was the goal of the foster care system. Nothing has driven home the importance of that position like this fictional exploration of a world where parental rights can be terminated over one mistake, over someone’s judgment of one facet of a person’s life without looking at the whole can alter the course of their life–and their child’s–forever. This is not to say all women who bear children are fit to be mothers. There are real and necessary reasons children are removed from the care of their mothers. But when our society perception of “good motherhood” is based primarily on sacrifice, self-abnegation, and the magical ability to ward off emotional, psychic, or physical harm by anticipating every possible outcome to yet-unrealized-situations, we are setting women who are trying their damnedest up to fail. We are reducing complex, multi-faceted women with real needs to one-dimensional providers of nurturance, sustenance, and comfort. Modern motherhood denies women the full spectrum of the human experience. 

I am sure some women are reading this and thinking “this wasn’t my experience with early motherhood at all!” I am so glad for you. Because nothing has brought me to the very edge of my sanity like early motherhood. And yet, when I look back, I remember the hard times in the abstract. But I remember every contour of our daughter’s face, the way her head felt nestled on my shoulder, the warmth of her tiny body. I loved her wholly and completely. And that’s the crux of early motherhood for me: being so consumed by love and so utterly wrung out by chores, tedium, servitude. It’s loving and hating the whole process. I wouldn’t trade one moment of it now. But I surely don’t expect women in the throes of the chaos to feel that way. That would be cruel.

What I needed in those early days was community instead of isolation, real conversation instead of judgment, and for someone to acknowledge that being a mother was really damn hard. What we really need is to extend women some grace. 

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