Perspectives on Motherhood

It’s Complicated

Many feel that motherhood is a blessed experience. But what if you’re not sure whether it’s for you?

BY DR. CRISTINA ROSELL

Mother. Mothering. Motherhood. I have complicated feelings when it comes to this identity, this action, this state…this concept.

 

As a young child, I already experienced conflicting feelings about motherhood. My mother and maternal grandmother used to say, “Cuando tú eres una madre…” (“When you are a mother”) to which I would always reply, “But I may not want to be a mother.” A gasp or an eye roll later, they would continue on in my Abi’s kitchen as if I had just made an annoying joke.

 

As a young child, I experienced conflicting feelings because I loved the mothers in my life—my own mother, my abuelas, my tías and tía abuelas, my surrogate moms, and my madrina. These women had a profound effect on my sense of self, my growth and development. I respected and admired them, in spite of their flaws. I wrapped myself in the love and protection they offered me; I bathed in their endless encouragement. I am imbued with their strength and their wisdom.

 

As a young child, I experienced fear and, to a certain degree, repulsion at the thought of motherhood. I was scared of labor. Just the word filled me with dread. The pain and sweat and blood of childbirth, sometimes resulting in death. The breaking open of the body. Dying to bring forth new life was a macabre irony not lost on me. When I looked upon the pregnant body, it seemed strange and alien to me, a temporary malformation that produced fluids and morning sickness, stretch marks and weight gain. It felt unnatural and yet to many, it was the most natural thing in the world—the biological destiny of women, some say.

 

As a young child, I watched my mother, a working mother, make sacrifices for my sake and that of my sisters. Exhausted and longing for sleep, she would visit our beds and accompany us until we felt safe from the monsters and shadows and worries that plagued our dreams. Sometimes this meant lying for hours on the hard floor between our twin beds, each of her arms outstretched to hold our hands until we dozed off. Most times, it meant going without—without time for herself, without new clothes, without lunch. Motherhood meant putting the needs of her children before her own.

 

As a young child, I watched other versions of motherhood too. Mothers who didn’t work, who had time to play with their children, take them shopping or to the salon. There was nothing wrong with this version. In truth, I envied it. But as I grew older, I felt both frustrated by and sympathetic to women whose singular identity was encapsulated by this small word and the colossal expectations it aroused: mother. While some wealthy women martyred themselves on the altar of motherhood as justification for their elevated cultural and socioeconomic status, for their unquestioned exemption from the labor force, others wrestled with the pressures and demands of childcare. In spite of their resources, many struggled.

 

As I grew older, I observed in others (and noted in myself) the judgment heaped upon women who identified solely as mothers. Shouldn’t these women be more, offer more, do more? More, more, more. Wasn’t it enough to just be a mother? I listened to many opinions on this topic (the most vociferous from women themselves) and experienced my own cognitive dissonance. Where was the support, the compassion for this life-long undertaking? 

 

Motherhood is thankless, I concluded.

 

I am now in my thirties, and I am married. My husband and I have discussed children on multiple occasions. Our feelings have changed, but they remain complicated. My own are constantly shifting—in recent years, I have come to view the pregnant body as beautiful and wondrous. Today, the environmental impact of bringing new life into this overpopulated world is at the forefront of my mind. Our earth is not comprised of endless resources—it cannot sustain us all indefinitely. Climate change has accelerated the destruction of our environment without which we cannot hope to live, to survive.

 

If I choose not to have children, will I forever regret that decision? If I choose to have children, can I be a mother with misgivings about motherhood? What kind of a mother does this make me? Additionally, I wonder if I will/should work, if I will/should “stay at home,” or if I will/should do both? Will I have that choice? Paid maternity leave and affordable childcare are neither available nor accessible for many in this country.

 

Women have long been caught in double binds: the Madonna/whore binary, superwomanhood and its “double enslavement,” as described by Betty Friedan. Is motherhood another double bind—damned if you do, damned if you don’t? We must each decide for ourselves. In my observations, motherhood, regardless of which version, can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

 

What I am realizing and coming to terms with is that the decision to become a mother is complex, constellating questions of identity, goals, ethical values and morality, even destiny. It is deeply personal and should not be judged, because even our own standards are a nexus of internalized biases and prejudices, new information, and recalibrated opinions. Figuring out who we want to be and what we want out of life is hard work. Whether or not this labor includes motherhood is entirely up to me, and this self-definition is a right that I must exercise—that we must all exercise—without fear, guilt, or shame.

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