The Anger of Mothering
Posted on April 3, 2014
My department hosted a visiting poet-educator this week for a campus event. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, who goes by Ekere, spoke in a chapel service about the importance of learning to see. She also visited a class, gave a reading, and facilitated a workshop. I wasn’t able to attend everything, but I did go to the workshop and joined her and some other colleagues for dinner on Tuesday night.
During Ekere’s chapel talk, she read an excerpt from a novella she has written called Sangria. In the excerpt, the title character describes being pregnant with her son, an experience that left her feeling like there was nothing between her insides–her soul–and the rest of the world. The excerpt ended with a line about how Sangria was able to understand “the agony of mothers.”
The agony of mothers.
The phrase stuck out to me, possibly because of a phrase I’ve had in my own head for the past few weeks: the anger of mothering.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the anger that I feel as a mother. Not toward my children. I don’t feel any meaningful anger toward them at all, and I think if I did, I would be seeking help with that. I’m talking about the anger that I feel at the world.
This was not what I felt when I was mothering just my daughter, Ruthie, so I know it’s possible to be a mother without feeling these feelings. However, I can’t ignore that since Neville was born two months ago, I feel such anger. When I have shared this anger with other mother-friends, I have learned that they, too, feel the same anger that I do.
So often, when we talk about motherhood, we talk about the beauty of it, or the way we should treasure it, or any number of other positive things. I agree with those things. I think that being a mother is the most significant role of my life. I love it. I can’t imagine my life without my children, and every sacrifice I’ve made to embrace this role has been worth it.
But then why this anger that I feel? What am I angry about?
I am angry that mothering is so hard.
I am angry that mothers must carry so much weight. We carry the literal weight of pregnancy and all of its life-changing complications. We carry the scars of delivery. We carry fear and anxiety over birth. We carry the knowledge that we are responsible for shepherding these tiny babies through childhood and into adulthood. Worse, we are responsible for getting them through middle school.
I am angry that even with the most devoted of partners, it always seems like the mothers must do more. This is not to point out fault in male partners, and I can’t attest to the differences felt by same-sex pairs, but when my mother-friends and I compare notes, we are stunned at how much more we manage than our partners, even if we are working outside the home and splitting the responsibilities of parenting. It seems so archaic. It goes against what many of us are striving for in our relationships. It feels dangerous to admit because someone could use it against us and say that our egalitarian relationships are a foolish undertaking. But it’s true nonetheless: among my friend group of liberal, feminist mothers, we still know how to do the children’s laundry, know where the diapers are, know what kind of wipes to buy, keep an eye on the supply level of every snack and necessity, plan the activities, remember to bring the diaper bag.
I am angry that so many of us feel we must ask for help because help is not readily given. We feel like we are asking favors of our partners, even when they are eager to help, when we need some alone time or some help with an unpleasant task.
Most of all, I am angry at the fact that mothers carry the worst of all fears: the fear of losing one’s child to some tragedy.
Is there any heavier weight than that fear, aside from actually experiencing a loss like that? That also makes me angry. I am angry that there has ever been a mother who has lost a child. There is nothing more unfair in the world. I can think of nothing worse, ad knowing friends who have gone through it makes me so angry at our fallen world.
What can I do with this anger, I’ve been wondering. When I stifle it, it explodes in places I don’t want it to. When I let it out, I feel guilty. When I talk about it, I feel like I’m saying terrible things and that people will judge me terribly for it.
This week, as I watched the poet-educator, I realized that there is something I can do.
I can respond to anger by nurturing us toward a less angry world.
During her writing workshop, Ekere told our students about the void many of us feel from a lack of physical contact with others. She talked about how she likes to put her hand on a person’s shoulder to connect with them. She ranked touch with the other senses we were exploring in the workshop.
I watched her as she took Neville from my arms, a huge smile across her face. “Here,” she said. “Let me hold him so you can write.” She caressed him and bounced him. She gently shushed him when he cried out, and she soothed him.
I watched her afterwards, talking with some of our students. She had taken two of them by the hand, and they, in turn, had taken the hands of the others in their little circle. They talked like that for five, maybe ten minutes. Their hand-holding was casual and yet intimate.
During dinner, Ekere again took Neville from me and walked with him around the restaurant so that I could help Ruthie, my daughter, color and drink her milk and not get upset about how late we were out. When he began to cry, I went to him, and she got me a chair so that I could sit and nurse him. “You need a drink,” she said, and returned moments later with my water glass.
“You’re like a saint,” I said. “No,” she replied, “a doula!”
As we were leaving, she pulled me into a hug and told me that I am doing a good, hard thing in my role as mother and teacher. “You are such a nurturing person,” I said.
I realized in that moment how much I have been drawn to those who nurture others since my children have been born. I think of all the mothers who have come alongside me since my children were born.
A grad school teacher who looked lovingly at Ruthie when she was a baby and said, “What a joy she is. What an absolute joy!”
A friend who showed up when I was sick and cleaned my apartment from top to bottom.
The women who brought meals when Ruthie was born. The ones who brought meals when Neville was born.
The women who sent me chocolate-dipped strawberries when I miscarried a couple of years ago.
My sisters and I sharing babysitting.
My mother-in-law sending me maternity clothes.
The mother of my daughter’s best friend, who texts me regularly since the baby was born and says, “Why don’t you send Ruthie over here to play for a few hours so you can get a break?”
My friend flying all the way from Vermont when I was pregnant because she knew I needed someone to take care of me for a while because my husband was so sick and my pregnancy was so hard and my daughter is such a handful.
The comfort I get from the fact that my mother lives next door, and she comes over for meals, and I can walk on our little gravel path through the woods and there she is.
The friend online who sent me a message and said, “Hi, honey. I’ve noticed you have been so hard on yourself/worried about the kids recently. I’m sending big hugs and a reminder that you are highly competent and have a lot of people around you who love and respect you. It will be OK.” That was the first moment I realized that adjusting to being a mother of two has been so much harder than I had anticipated.
All of these kind, nurturing mothers.
Maybe the reason we mothers take care of each other is because we know about the difficulties, even when we don’t speak them. We know about what Ekere calls “the agony of motherhood.” We know about the anger. And when we give to one another our time, our comfort, our gifts, and our words, then we help it all even out.