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Born Too Soon

By Marcy Sheiner

Every time I read one of the new websites or magazines about motherhood, I feel twinges of envy and despair, wishing that these resources and forums had existed thirty or forty years ago.
I had a lot to be pissed off about when I was raising kids. I was still a kid myself, trapped in a boring suburban marriage; my first child was born with a medical condition that meant multiple surgeries, specialists, daily vomiting; one soul-numbing hassle after another. I was a teenage girl, and I wanted to have fun. Instead, my life was a succession of doctor’s waiting rooms and hospital wards, pukey baby clothes and crying marathons. The only thing worse than the guilt brought on by spurts of murderous rage towards a helpless infant was believing that I was the only monster to ever have such feelings.

With so much to be pissed off about, you’d think I would have spent hours huddled around kitchen tables commiserating with other mothers about my lot in life. Having heard about how free and open we were back in the 60s, you might think that I ran around telling everyone just how freaked out I was. But the few times I tried to tell the truth— even in my women’s consciousness-raising group— I was hit with such heavy moralistic judgment that I soon learned to paste a bright smile on my face and speak in a tone of false cheer.

Forty years later with the kids grown and the grandbabies in my lap, I can’t help but notice that mothers are finally talking to one another. Not the way we did, competing for Mother of the Year, pretending to have everything under control, but really talking: asking the questions, probing the issues, telling the goddam truth already. Every time I read one of the new websites or magazines about motherhood, I feel twinges of envy and despair, wishing that these resources and forums had existed thirty or forty years ago. But at the same time, I want to cheer these younger mothers on. The things they’re saying finally validate what I felt during my child-raising years.

I first noticed the stirrings of this sea change seven or eight years ago when I was shopping for a baby gift for a young friend. Browsing through the parenting section of Borders, I was stunned to find shelves stocked with as many books on how to care for mama as the baby. Chapter headings hinted at parental ambivalence and the shocking change a baby brings to one’s existence. When I gave one of these books to my friend I told her that they had not been available when I was a new mother. Of course not, she said. It took you guys to write them.

I loved that she credited my generation, and when I thought about it I realized that, although we stifled ourselves, we did manage to pave the way for an opening of the dialog. The 1970s women’s movement was nothing if not a huge gabfest, and we had developed new ways of looking at and talking about our lives. We first had to wade through who-does-the-dishes and who’s-on-top-during-intercourse, so we never got around to facing the profound and disturbing issues regarding motherhood. Fortunately, evolution happens. The conversation moved inexorably forward; compared to the way we did not talk thirty years ago, the conversations heard today represent a giant leap forward. You can hear it at Mommy and Me groups, and you can read it in magazines like hip mama and Brain, Child.

A recent Brain, Child article poses the question, “Is motherhood a universal bond?” The author, Jennifer Neisslein, points out the ways in which groups of mothers differ from one another; she notes with insight that mothers of profoundly disabled children would prefer that mothers of normal children save the oh-the-kids-are-killing-me schtick for someone else. Back in the day, nobody ever noticed things like that. I remember cringing and hiding my envy whenever a mother complained that her crawling baby was getting into everything; my baby didn’t crawl until he was almost two.

Because of my unique experience, my perspective on and reactions to motherhood were more extreme than those of most mothers. Anything that sets one apart tends to bring clarity of vision, and from the start I suspected that all mothers felt the same fear, inadequacy and guilt as I did— only I felt it in spades. In those silent years, though, there was no way to know for sure if this was true.

Today I could easily find out by attending a conference like Mothering Matters, held recently in New Jersey. Its promotional ad says it’s for those “who are engaged in advocating for or supporting the work of mothering.” Supporting the work of mothering! What a concept!

And now I discover a website entitled “Mothers’ Movement Online.” Aha!— I am not making this up: there really is a movement under way! As Meg Christian sang in 1970 about the Women’s Movement: Hello, hooray, I’m ready!

What strikes me in the articles I read in these new venues is the sense of personal power that contemporary mothers experience. They have absolute faith in themselves and their ability to advocate for their children. I’m not saying that we didn’t have any power; it’s a cliché that we could lift a car off our kid if we had to. But when it came to our place in society, we were more likely to feel like victims. In a world where the pressure to bear children was so strong and steady, and where if you got pregnant there was little choice but to have the baby, women were victimized by our biological capacity. Many of us felt that our lives were thoroughly circumscribed by having kids— which was more than just a feeling— and we resented it.

I felt victimized by the lack of real information, that I’d been sold— and eagerly bought— a line of propaganda about the glory of motherhood. I may have gotten pregnant by accident, but I had always wanted babies of my own— somehow I’d gotten the message that mothering would be fun. Nobody ever told me it was hard work— or, as in my case, potentially painful. Several young women who read my book, Perfectly Normal: A Mother’s Memoir, have told me that it made them think twice about having children. Sometimes I think this is precisely the reason mothers don’t tell younger generations the truth— we’re programmed to keep the species propagating.

Today, mothers are more likely to have actively chosen to bear children— indeed, some have gone through hell and high water to get pregnant. Blame and resentment don’t come into the picture. Their sense of power translates into real chutzpah; they ask, for instance, why the job of mothering is still unpaid. (If you raised an issue like that back in the day, you were branded a mercenary bitch.) While mothers of my generation wouldn’t dare use the words “sex” and “mother” in the same sentence, today’s mothers have the guts to admit that breastfeeding might be sexually arousing and that some mothers are phone sex workers or strippers. They’ve coined terms like marriage shock and the war on mothers and children. They organize, march, and protest, kids in tow, against policies like so-called welfare reform that keep mothers and children in poverty. A few years ago a Borders employee threw a nursing mother out of the store, and the brouhaha that resulted was heard around the world.

This movement, then, exists on at least two fronts: in the way we talk to one another about mothering, and in activism aimed at making life better for mothers. As it was with feminism, we first had to tell the truth and give support to one another before we could go out and change the world.

And mark my words, the world will be changed. Hell, it’s already changing: lately, people without kids are doing a lot of grumbling about the world becoming too “child-centered,” and you know you’re making progress when you’ve earned a backlash. Changes can be as small as a diaper-changing table in the men’s room, or as big as extended maternity leave (the day that leave is paid for we shall have truly arrived).

A few years ago I wrote an essay for hip mama called “Anonymous was a Mother,” in which I used the phrase Attacks on mothers, you ask? Ariel Gore, the zine’s founder and editor, deleted the phrase, telling me, Our readers won’t ask. Even as I chuckled, tears sprang to my eyes: I felt so completely validated, perhaps for the first time in forty years. Even though I was born too soon, I can still benefit from this Mothers’ Movement. It’s never too late to tell the truth, or to be heard. 

mmo : march 2005

Marcy Sheiner is the editor of a dozen collections of women’s erotica. Her poems, short stories, journalism and erotica have been widely published, most recently in The HipMama’s Survival Book, edited by Ariel Gore.
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© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online