couples

A conflicted mum: 'I can't understand why it's all about our kids.'

Lee Kofman came to motherhood late, and was uncertain it was the role for her. She’s since discovered she feels different to many other mums – and very often at odds with their view of the world. In this essay, she unravels her conflicting feelings about the mothering personas she lives daily.

The Child-Averse Mother.

Just before my 40th birthday I gave birth to my first, and so far only, child. This somewhat belated foray into motherhood was preceded by years of great ambivalence, when not only was I uncertain I’d ever have children, but was even sympathetic to the stance of one of my favourite writers, Geoff Dyer, who wrote, only half-jokingly: “I hate children and I hate parents of children”.

I was particularly irritated by those stereotypical spoiled middle-class kids – or, as American historian Pamela Haag calls them in her book Marriage Confidential, ‘royal children’. I saw them everywhere, sipping on their babycinos, exhibiting excesses of so-called self-esteem, taking over adults’ conversations. And if I ever spotted any chubby-faced, snotty creatures in the cafes where I often wrote, I would move away to the furthest table.

Lee and her son, Luca.

My child aversion probably had something to do with the fact that I never stopped being a child myself. Acquiring one of my own would have been my official admission into that famed, and supposedly prestigious, universe of adulthood, with its endless responsibilities and anxieties, a club to which I never wanted to belong.

What could be more adult than that mythical label ‘mother’? The wholesome ring of this title discouraged me, the perpetual coquette, even more. Even now that I have finally succumbed to the breeding imperative and am discovering that what I’d always imagined as mostly hard work is actually bound with pleasure (more on that later), I am still struggling. My current struggle is not so much with the act of mothering, but rather with the Mother Outfit I am now supposed to be wearing.

The Mother-Averse Mother.

I enjoy the practical camaraderie between mothers, a phenomenon I didn’t know existed until I joined this unofficial nation. I like how we courteously smile and make room for each other with our cumbersome prams, how we hold doors open in shops for those same prams, or exchange sympathetic looks when our offspring misbehave in public.

What has taken me surprise is the way motherhood leaves me even more vulnerable to attracting into my life exactly the kind of people I want nothing to do with. Distant relatives and long-forgotten acquaintances keep re-discovering me on account of my joining their world of ‘parents of children’; during my outings with my son strangers approach me regularly on the assumption I am now available on-demand to discuss my child’s (and, subsequently, theirs) feeding and sleeping schedules.

It seems to me that the social encounters I am now experiencing epitomise our times; motherhood has come to be synonymous with group activity of the peer-support kind. There is an underlying assumption that on becoming a mother you automatically enter a state of isolation, as if your previous networks have been erased with the appearance of your infant, and you now require a new social world composed of those who can truly understand your current predicament. The soaring popularity of mothers groups over recent decades, and their ardent promotion by health professionals and mothers, seems to unfold in the same spirit.

ADVERTISEMENT

And then sometimes I think there must be something profoundly wrong with me: I don’t enjoy child-centric interactions, and worse, I never joined one of those mothers groups. Don’t I want to get some support, particularly given that my husband and I have no family around? Sure I do, but the idea of achieving this by befriending women on account of our shared willingness to breed is as foreign to me as befriending people just because they share my Russian or Israeli origins. Besides, I am a loner. Any social groups, even book clubs, baffle me.

Related: Motherhood is a continual process of letting go.

Still, in my first days of motherhood, and pressured by a child health nurse and several well-meaning friends, I did briefly contemplate trying one of these groups out. To test the water, in my local cafe which serves as a meeting spot for several mothers groups I eavesdropped on their conversations. I did learn some tricks on how to better administer solids and where to find discounted baby clothes, yet that experience was also a useful reminder of my constitutional inability to spend even an hour in this ‘neighbourhood’.

To get some help in a more diluted, less in-your-face manner, I ventured into the virtual mother-spaces. Yet the more websites, parenting forums and blogs I browsed, the more confused I felt.

In this universe perpetually torn apart by civil unrest, every childrearing decision I’ve ever made seemed to enrage somebody - the forces of allergy fighters, the armies of earth mothers, the battalions of controlled crying guerillas. After some weeks of escalating panic I realised my main sin was that I was too eclectic in my attitudes to please anyone. I thought nothing of taking as many drugs during childbirth as I could, but I was also into breastfeeding (and yet not against occasional alcoholic intake while doing so); or, we co-slept on and off with our baby for months but later implemented a gentle version of controlled crying.

No wonder my baby proved not to live up to internet standards, comparing poorly to the virtual children of the blogosphere.

Most unfortunately, he wouldn’t wave goodbye at ten months, and he still hasn’t mastered dancing the kozachok. I began missing the early days of blissed ignorance when I deluded myself into believing Luca and I were just fine.

Eventually I decided that to prevent a delayed onset of postnatal depression, I had better listen to my former therapist, whose advice I’d sought when I couldn’t decide whether to have a baby. If you end up being a mother, she’d told me, do me one favor—don’t consult any parenting books or websites. I’ve been happier since I obeyed, and once again enjoy Luca’s (apparently mostly delayed) meeting of milestones.

Don’t consult any parenting books or websites.

I’m hardly a nostalgic person, but following these excursions into the social world of motherhood, I soon began thinking I rather like the relative simplicity of my mother (and her society’s) attitudes. In the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s women had no specific, named, organised, over-researched or professionalised spaces for baby conversations. These were just a part of their daily chatter.

ADVERTISEMENT

In this spirit, for advice and support I now turn to those of my friends who are also mothers, but aren’t fixated on the ‘mother part’ of themselves. With these women I enjoy freewheeling conversations where we take turns complaining about our non-sleeping babies with accounts of books we’re reading and whatever else that takes our fancy. Outside of these friendships, in the contemporary mother-scape I often feel - as I used to in my first years in Australia - like a perplexed foreigner.

The Bag Lady.

My sense of alienation intensifies whenever I observe mothers in public, where they can be easily identified not only by the small people attached to them, but also by the size of their bags. Western versions of Bedouins, they seem to carry around their own equivalents of tents.

Clearly, these gigantic bags belong to women well-prepared to provide for their offspring. Until recently the bag I carried around was just a little larger than an Ipad. Somehow I managed to fit in nappies, wipes, a bib, a book and a few small toys. But sometimes even these meagre supplies would be forgotten or not replenished and we’d go out at our peril.

The fact that the contents of other mothers’ bags remain a mystery to me makes me wonder further about my parental shortcomings. What am I depriving my baby of? Perhaps I should, after all, attend a mothers group? Maybe that’s where the art of the large bag is passed on.

'They seem to carry around their own equivalents of tents'

When out, I sneakily watch other mothers open their bags to produce an array of plastic spoons, containers of baby food, rags, cloths, spare costumes. In comparison, Luca and I resemble fugitives, running for our lives with the few random possessions we have salvaged. To satisfy my son’s hunger while we are out I breastfeed him in any number of locations - in libraries or sitting on sidewalks - or purchase whatever is on offer in nearby eateries, then feed him using their metal teaspoons.

We sit directly on the grass or floors, and sometimes leave places earlier than we would like because Luca has soiled his onesie and I have no spare clothes. My greatest blunder was forgetting drinking water, which I only realised I had to be bringing along when Luca was sixteen months - a true story. Now that I’ve finally bought one, I’m working on remembering to put it in the bag, then on actually using it.

Recently I increased the size of my bag a little. This wasn’t a deliberate decision, just that the original one finally gave in, tearing under my guilty efforts to stuff it beyond what was physically possible. But I haven’t yet completely filled up my new bag. Maybe I never will. Guilt or not, I actually like our mother–baby lightness. I enjoy walking with Luca tucked in the Bjorn without much additional weight; I am glad we easily fit into crowded book launches; that we leave home on a whim without much fuss. Perhaps this is selfish, but I am secretly pleased that having a child doesn’t burden me as much as I once feared it would. By rejecting the big bag I refuse to let the mother in me occupy more space than I am prepared to allocate her.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Shit-Detecting Mother.

Another reason for putting off motherhood was my fear that having a child would be incompatible with being a writer. It would be convenient to blame Cyril Connolly for this anxiety, he who famously scared generations of women by writing ‘there is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway’. But I also grew up to the tune of my mother’s refrain that a woman’s most important task is to raise children and all else must give way.

My mother’s opinion, my being a natural-born rebel and the watching of some friends follow just such a path led me to resent the idea of becoming a parent even more. Motherhood seemed to mean destruction of all I ever cared about - independence, intellectual curiosity, creative living. One of the things that tilted the scales in the child’s favor was that I’d finally finished the memoir I’d been working on for five years. I felt less frustrated by the possibility of taking a break from writing - if the need ever arose.

Lee, writing.

However, the happiness at having my son didn’t take over my desire to write. Quite the opposite: it reignited it, just like it did five years earlier when I fell in love with my now-husband. The baby, as loves often do, took the edge off the urgency to look for the ultimate fulfillment in writing. Paradoxically, once this urgency diminished, I actually wanted to write more, because now the act was less tightly bound with anxiety.

But how do you disentangle yourself from the amorphous existence of the mother–baby dyad to reconstruct the strict routines that writing requires? In my case, it was the tyranny of deadlines. Six weeks into the life of the person I’d conjured up, I had to return to work.

Related: The wonderful, torturous lessons of motherhood.

In the years before Luca was born, I would read with a mixture of admiration and horror all those biographical liner notes on books: ‘X lives with her husband, three dogs, two cats and 4.5 children’. I thought these writers were heroes, made of material I wasn’t.

Then I read the novelist Anne Enright’s motherhood memoir Making Babies, where she describes how, after having her children, she wrote in short snatches and particularly at night when her husband was home. Luckily, I’ve been bestowed with a supportive husband too. Still, while in my twenties I loved writing into the night, in recent years my creative brain switches off around 8pm. Besides, I’ve grown attached to spending evenings reveling in the satisfaction of ‘having-written’, finally not feeling guilty about reading for pleasure.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, once I resumed writing, I realised that my experience of cyclical time changed with Luca’s birth. Day was no longer a clearly delineated entity with fixed rituals, and there was some magic in this experience. Not a big sleeper to begin with, and prone to dozing while breastfeeding, I didn’t feel as sleep deprived as many new mothers do. My baby and I would lead a floating, moment-by-moment existence made up of breastfeeds, playtime, housework, walks and short periods of writing during Luca’s sleeps or with the help of my husband.

Leisure and work became so enmeshed that the pleasure of well-deserved rest lost its relevance. Which might suggest that I’ve resolved my hostile-pram issue. But I haven’t. While I’ve realised that the life I once considered heroic was kind-of doable, I’ve also found plenty to grieve about. My biggest frustration with writing in snatches is that I’ve lost the daydreaming space that is essential to my work. Besides, such episodic writing becomes less romantic as the deadlines of my writing projects loom closer. Then the pram once again appears ominous.

My chief battle though is not for time, but for my soul. Motherhood puts me at risk of becoming a sentimental writer. Some writing themes, involving unpleasant things done to small children (particularly of the male gender), are a no-go-zone for me now. Worse, becoming a mother can turn the most original writers into cliché-producers.

Take Erica Jong, who in the wake of her daughter’s birth made her character Fanny (from Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones) go through the same experience, describing it in the well-worn language of ‘miracle of the birth’ and ‘perfect fingers and toes’. Our love for our children leaves us vulnerable to acquiring sacred cows, because some of those can relieve the many parental anxieties.

As a once-bullied child, for example, I know the notion of mandatory innocence of children to be bullshit, but as an over-protective mother I’d like to believe it. Yet writers cannot afford such luxuries. As Hemingway once suggested, ‘the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector’. I am yet to find my way to preserve such a detector in me in the face of my child’s (supposedly) innocent smile.

The Entitled Mother.

Since having Luca, I have grown to feel entitled. Image: iStock
ADVERTISEMENT

I struggle with most aspects of the modern mother identity, yet I have taken to one of its features - one I observe with irritation in others - with embarrassing gusto. Since having Luca, I have grown to feel entitled. Namely, I now feel comfortable pushing ahead in shop queues or demanding an appointment with my hairdresser exactly when it’s convenient, waving my baby about like a royal sceptre.

What’s more, this feeling of entitlement has a supernatural quality to it. As a mother, I now imagine myself to be on such high moral ground that I literally feel invincible. Breast cancer? Car accident? MS? Huh! Now that I am fulfilling my biological and social duties, responsible for raising a new human, none of these woes will befall me. Yes, despite my best intentions, I’ve come to feel super-noble.

In our culture, motherhood is frequently talked about as the ultimate act of heroism and self-sacrifice; even the normally unsentimental Enright offers the trite idea in her memoir that motherhood makes you less selfish. To become a mother is interchangeable with becoming a better person. No wonder this goes to the heads of some mothers, and we may feel entitled on the account of our goodness.

Indeed, mothers do a lot of difficult work, frequently putting their children’s needs first. But can’t motherhood also be viewed as an act of selfishness? At least in my case, this holds true. Why should I feel selfless for bringing another person into this dubious, already overpopulated and resource-scarce world and for self-serving reasons?

While I have always been ambivalent about having children, I was also ambivalent about not having them, because I worried about growing old and dying alone, I thought having a child would enhance my marriage even further, and I wanted to make my husband, who wanted kids, happy. Now that I have Luca, I also want him because he has brought an unexpected amount of delight into my life. So why should I deserve a medal for becoming a mother?

In our love for our babies, these delicious extensions of ourselves, we can be just as solipsistic as lovers are. Take my recent venture to one of those council-sponsored parent-information sessions. The woman who was sitting next to me had a lovely smile and at the end of formalities I introduced myself, hoping that she and I would manage to advance beyond the usual mother smalltalk - or, rather, the chant where you recite your children’s names, genders, ages and defecatory habits - to something more real, urgent.

ADVERTISEMENT

I was overly optimistic. We didn’t even manage to get through the usual list, as every sentence we exchanged was punctuated by the woman’s lengthy gazing into her son’s eyes accompanied by (rhetorical, I think) enquiries: ‘Aren’t you beautiful?’ I was clearly very low on her ladder of priorities. Eventually I decided it best to leave the two of them alone.

Once outside, I contemplated my possible sin of child neglect as I could never bring myself to interrupt my conversations with such devotions. But the day was too lovely, too creamy with vanilla sunshine, for Dostoyevskian soul searching. I pushed my pram towards the nearby park, resolving to stick to my no-mothers-groups policy and in the process almost knocked down some young man, who, distracted on his mobile, didn’t give way to me.

The Romantic Mother.

My reluctance to worship Luca during social interactions is no reflection (I plead with you, dear jury!) of my love for my son. Like those same mothers I avoid, I can talk about him for hours, with quasi-religious exaltation, in formidably tedious detail. In my defense, I only abuse two people with this behaviour - my husband and my mother. Otherwise, Luca is my dirty secret, which makes him even more desirable.

Like those same mothers I avoid, I can talk about him for hours

My feelings towards my baby are embarrassingly romantic. I get ridiculously excited every time I return home to him, even if I have only been absent for an hour. I spend a long time putting him to sleep, then impatiently wait for him to wake up. I don’t know how to describe the thrills I experience without sounding incestuous. All I can say is that being Luca’s mother has been a feral experience.

Sometimes I nibble my baby from his toes to the crown of his head or stare into his eyes for as long as he lets me, like a new, insatiable lover. I kiss his somewhat smelly bottom with no reservations. His lips, little plump tummy, fine wheat-blond hair, all these send me into raptures.

I always knew that if I had children I would love them, I just hadn’t anticipated such a storm of emotions in those years when I obsessively weighed the pros and cons of getting myself a kid. How much easier things would have been if I’d known I would be completely overtaken by my baby, flattened by the weight of his pleasure, that I would lose myself within his dark eyes and multiple chins, that the images of him curling his rounded toes would haunt me throughout the day.

Related: 'Is my yearning for children really about wanting love?'

Having just written all this love poetry, I feel compelled to emphasise that Luca didn’t really change my life, as that famous cliché goes. (Sometimes, I think a mother’s destiny is to be submerged under the tsunami of clichés so frequently thrown our way: the days with a baby are long; they grow up so quickly; you get baby-brain ... perhaps I am abnormal, but none of the above describe my experience). Rather than changing my life, Luca has enhanced it greatly - with a fairytale-like intensity. Actually, it was falling in love with my husband that truly altered my life, including its bringing of Luca into existence.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Yummy Mummy.

I’ve always thought of myself as a man’s woman and cared more about finding romantic love than making a child. Love felt a necessity, just like writing. A child was a possibility. One other reason for my late coming to motherhood was that until I was thirty-four I had never met a man with whom I wanted to raise children. When I did meet Him, I was so enthralled that I wanted to spend some years with just the two of us.

I knew I was gambling on my fertility, but for me it has been worth it.

Lee and Luca

During our years of childfree romance I read that famous essay ‘Truly, Madly, Guiltily’ (The New York Times) by American writer Ayelet Waldman, where she admits to loving her husband, the novelist Michael Chabon even more than her (much-loved) four children, and to not understanding those women who after childbirth redirect their desire onto their children and stop having sex with their husbands. I thought: here is my role model.

In this spirit, once I got pregnant, my husband and I made a series of resolutions: we would keep going out on regular dates; maintain conversations outside of recounting our child’s virtues; keep our house as adult-looking as possible and finally - we would preserve our space as lovers. Two years later, we have mostly kept to those promises, although the last one has proved to be the most challenging.

Gone are our nights of tipsy stumbling into the house, then tumbling into bed (or somewhere else) and into each other. Now when we go out, we come home to our babysitter, which is obviously less predisposing to lovemaking (combined with the knowledge of our routine 6am morning starts when Luca habitually opens his lovely eyes).

Worse, despite our resolutions, our bedroom has been overtaken by the baby. It all began with the bassinet invasion. There it stood on our return from the hospital, pristine and frilly, just centimetres away from our bed, daring us to disrupt its militant innocence. What kind of dirty animals would interfere with the higher morals of this Baby Bunting creation? The bassinet defeated me. It made me feel unbearably chaste.

Six months later the bassinet was finally banished into storage. But even now, with the cot standing on guard in the study adjacent to our bedroom, things have not significantly improved. How can I enter that space of oblivion that fertilises sex, when the acoustics between our room and the baby’s resemble those of Carnegie Hall? Add to this Luca’s propensity for waking precisely at our most ‘tender’ moments, and up until recently his spending chunks of the night in our bed, and you can see the confusion that has set in for my body.

ADVERTISEMENT

One moment I am a mother whose flesh is for the noble purposes of nourishment and comforting of a child. The next moment this same body is supposed to become an object of desire and pleasure for my husband and me. By the time we laboriously manage to turn it back into such a thing, with the expectation of finally reaping the rewards for our efforts, the baby wakes again and my body rapidly sheds its Adult World qualities. Eventually satisfied, he returns to his cot. And then what?

My flesh is confused. So is my husband. We’re still making our way out of this tale of constant metamorphosis. Ovid, any advice? I want to be a man’s woman again. Now!

The Child-Mother.

While the erotic play in my life has diminished (temporarily, I hope), I am discovering that my old anxiety that motherhood would turn me into an ‘adulty’ adult wasn’t justified. My excursions into the social and virtual spaces of contemporary mother-world do leave me exhausted and anxious. But between Luca and me a new play space has opened up, curing me of adult sensibilities.

This is because Luca - just like most children and good writers - possesses the ability to render the mundane strange and exciting. The feel of my tongue on his palm sends him into fits of laughter. Together we delight at the splattering water drops and the clanking plates as I wash dishes, and we are endlessly amused by the sight and feel of our feet slipping into socks. My habitual indifference to parks disappears in Luca’s company, as together we conquer the wilderness of their playgrounds. Even my interest in other children is expanding a little as I observe them through my son’s eyes.

One of Luca’s and my favorite play spaces is our local cafe. There we entertain ourselves by conversing with the noisy espresso machine, rolling a ball in the backyard and admiring the cakes and pretty girls on display, all the while sipping on a latte and a babycino.

Last week, though, as we settled at our regular table I saw a woman with her laptop glare at us with irritation, then move away to the furthest table. I automatically felt sympathy for her, yet the feeling was tinged with resentment. Ah, why did she have to point out so clearly - so effortlessly, so emphatically - that Luca and I have finally joined that dreaded clan, that infamous club of parents and their royal children?

This essay appeared in Mothermorphosis: Australian storytellers write about Becoming a Mother published by MUP, available here

Lee is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author, writing teacher and mentor based in Melbourne. She published three fiction books in Hebrew, but since 2002 she has been writing exclusively in English and publishing short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry widely in Australia, Scotland, UK, USA and Canada.