My colleague had a long-awaited baby this winter. Over 40 and still unwillingly child free, she always wanted a baby. As her biological clock threatened to run out of batteries she decided to make an all out effort to achieve biological motherhood. Diabetic and overweight, she managed to lose 80 pounds and make the effort to walk around the block of her city neighborhood a few times a day for a year.
Finally, with a little hormonal assistance from her doctor, she conceived and gave birth to a baby boy. Everyone was surprised at the baby's gender since as long as anyone knew this woman she was wrapped up in a daydream of Barbi-pink nurseries, crocheted comforters and collected handcrafted petunia-pink baby outfits from Etsy.
She could be a frustrating person to be around - her abundant artistic talent, her travels with her musician husband, her friends - were secondary to her dream of a baby. In her mind, without a baby she was not happy, not connected, not a woman.
This winter, after the initial barrage of Facebook baby pictures, she became invisible. No longer at the studio, she didn't call, didn't make trips in to bring baby to visit, and finally stopped posting photos on Facebook entirely. We all expected her to pop in one day with her baby boy gloriously wrapped up in pastel pink.
Concerned, a friend headed over to her house to find her in bed with unopened baby shower presents strewn across the floor of every room with grandma caring for the baby. The new mom was clearly depressed. When asked why she said that it was, in part, that the new baby wouldn't take to breastfeeding. She just didn't feel like a Mom if she couldn't breastfeed.
Our friend became irate and insisted on putting together the baby's new stroller taking him for walk. After all the years of listening to this woman talk about how she wasn't a real woman until she became a Mom, she wasn't about to let her stay in bed and avoid motherhood just because the baby was refusing to breastfeed. This kid clearly had a mind of his own, and that was exactly what was causing this breach in mother/baby bonding. He wasn't supposed to have a mind of his own. Motherhood, to this woman, was about merging with her child, overriding his individuality and her own in the process.
After a few more weeks of angst the baby took to the breast. His mom left her bed and became an instant and relentless advocate for breastfeeding. What’s more, she started posting her public feeding schedule online – interested friends can come and witness the miracle of breast bonding at any number of coffee shops across town.
I find all of this rather sad. First off, this talented, and once vivacious woman couldn’t find any self-satisfaction until she successfully gave birth. She risked her life to give birth. Yet, after all she went through, she still couldn't feel a sense of a satisfaction until her baby breastfed. Finally, she achieved a sense of satisfaction and affirmation of her sense of womanhood by making breastfeeding a public spectacle with an online performance schedule.
Recently, I received a letter from a woman in her 50's who decided to not have kids for the very reason my colleague worked so hard to have one. The writer felt she might be tempted to invest her children with her entire sense of self, using kids to affirm her existence in a manner leading to an unhealthy subordination of her own individuality and of parent/child boundaries.
This letter was very welcome as the writer clearly values individuality and is a compassionate, thoughtful person. Very few people consider how their dependency needs might impact a future child when making parenthood decisions. It is a mature and generous attitude.
Compassion is an attribute generally associated with motherhood. Yet, I don’t find my colleagues' competitive attitude towards childcare as kindhearted. Sadly, her focus is not on her child. He is a conduit through which she feels she can purge a lifetime of insecurity, failure and boredom by proving to the world that she is a Super Mom.
Sadly, I notice that many women seemed to have happily and zealously allowed the "Mom" moniker to supplant their identity as "women" – the extrapolation being that non-moms are considered non-women. This new attitude may be, in part, due to relentless marketing media. After all, Super Moms tend to buy a lot of stuff - a short trip to everyone's favorite polka-dot big box store will confirm that fact.
Even more insidious is a media-driven cultural effort since the early 1980's to move women back into the home, crushing the budding appreciation woman were developing for their lives as individuals - creative, intelligent, powerful - independent (at least in the mind) of home, husband, and kids. As female identity becomes inextricably merged with motherhood kids become more dependent and guilty. Children can’t possibly meet the boundless needs of a person seeking affirmation of an identity based on dependence.
And lately, I see more women turning against one another. Instead of working towards common goals of respect and equal pay for equal work, woman are now competing to meet external cultural expectations while striving to become Super Moms. The result of allowing society to establish only one definition of womanhood is that non-mothers are treated as non-human. And, while mothers may feel smug and empowered by perceived elite societal status they are also being dehumanized - stripped of individuality and herded together like cattle - breeding and shopping on command to meet market demand.