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Compulsory Motherhood

The piece about the British mother who publically admits to regretting ever giving birth to her children came to me via a second blogger, this one a single woman who is grateful for the validation that she may never in fact want to have children.

The British mother always knew that she didn't want children, but married her high school sweetheart who wanted a large family. They both thought the other would change. Within a few years, the woman decided she couldn't deprive her husband of children and bore him two. The people who told her that once she became a mother, she would be happy she did were wrong. She loves her children and raised them, but regrets ever having them.

The second woman also knows that she has never wanted children. She isn't married, but expresses the input she receives from society and family that she is wrong in her evaluation of her own feelings. She is told that she will change her mind about children, that she is a bad person for not wanting children, that she is missing out, or that once she has children she would change. She wrote her essay to thank the older woman for reinforcing her resolve to trust her own knowledge of herself and her own vision of her future. A future without children.

As these two very different women were describing the pressures they felt to live a life adverse to their desires, I remembered an Adrienne Rich essay that I read last fall, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."

Let me quote some of it, and substitute motherhood for heterosexuality: "The bias of compulsory motherhood, through which non-mothering experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorent, or simply rendered invisible, could be illustrated from many other texts than the two just preceding" (632)

I don't mean to suggest that motherhood and heterosexuality are completely interchangeable throughout the essay--but I do mean to push on Rich's idea that heterosexuality, as a default position, exerts certain pressures on women to set aside their misgivings and conform. Motherhood also seems like a default position in our culture, and the narrative of childlessness is often attended by a similar spectrum of reception as lesbianism, ranging from sympathy for the infertile as tragically damaged to portrayals of the childless-by-choice as unnatural or even monstrous. To really explore the dark waters of this rhetoric, check out the anti-birth control discussion that is directed at the Affordable Healthcare Act.

A lot of people feel the pressure to be accepted and normal, or question their own feelings and desires when the majority of people say they are missing out on something good or are actively doing something bad. If you are pretty sure you don't want to drink coffee, but you've never had it, and everyone you know loves it, you'd probably think about trying it. But a kid isn't something you can try, says our culture. It's not the same experience to babysit someone else's kid. So you hate being around other people's kids, our culture says, but you'll love your own. Trust us.

To which the British mother's piece, despite the generous amounts of hateful comments, is trying to assert itself. Don't trust our culture, this woman says. You will regret it. Trust yourself.

I always thought that I'd have children some day, although there were times when I wasn't sure how I would manage it. I grew up watching Murphy Brown carry on raising her child despite the off-camera posturing of politicians, and watching one of my own aunts struggle with the decision to give up her hopes of building a family through artificial insemination thanks, at least in part, to pressure from my family. I didn't think I had much chance of meeting a man who would want to start a family with me, so I was mentally preparing myself to do it on my own.

I'm not sure if this makes me as clueless about how others perceive me as the women in the Dove experiment, or if my husband is just some sort of lucky fluke. But either way, I was married at 23 and asking my husband to make babies with me before we had even set the date. We were married in spring and by fall we were expecting our first child, due a few months after our first anniversary.

If the story of how I became a mother ended there, I might have read these two blog pieces today and wondered if I, too, was bum-rushed into motherhood by a culture that tells me it's the best thing I'll ever do. With a two year old who is just beginning to embrace the role propounded by the label "terrible," and a four year old who occasionally forgets himself and likes to join in, poopy diapers to change, and someone waking up in the middle of every other night, it would be easy for me to wonder, is this really what I wanted from my life? Do I, also, regret my children?

That fall, after I learned I was pregnant, I was luminous with joy. I crocheted a baby blanket and bought used clothes of Ebay and tried to plan how to convert the second bedroom of our townhouse from my office into a nursery. But I also had doubts. My husband and I were newlyweds, readying ourselves to be new parents. But I remember after one fight, wondering if I hadn't made a terrible mistake--throwing my life away by becoming dependent on a man I barely knew. I was self-aware enough, at 23, to know I'd taken a huge risk. Raising a child by myself on the salary I could command with a master of fine arts seemed like a pretty bad fall-back position.

I was trapped. Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind, my pregnancy failed. When I started bleeding, I rushed to the nearest hospital, despite the warnings the midwife we had chosen gave us on our first visit. I didn't care if it was inconvenient for her to coordinate care at a hospital where she didn't have privileges. I was only six weeks pregnant, and I wanted someone to tell me it was all going to turn out fine.

I called my husband and my father on the way to the emergency room. My husband began his long trek across town to hold my hand in the triage room. My father tried to give me the good news I wanted. Maybe it's just placenta previa, he told me, just a little blood from a minor condition that will resolve itself. It's one of three times that my father really came through for me.

In the emergency room, my husband was escorted in by a nurse. They recognized him by his anxiety and his camouflage. The resident, who also attended me when I sliced open my finger on a broken aquarium the year before, read us the results of my blood work. The six color-coded vials of blood that the nursing student next to him had drawn had revealed something that shocked me. "You're not pregnant," the doctor told me. I didn't understand. It took several minutes for him to explain to me that the results showed that I had no HCG in my system, the hormone that makes the plus sign show up on a home pregnancy test, the hormone used to diagnose pregnancy. I told him about our multiple positive pregnancy tests and the confirming test at the base clinic, and all he could do is shrug. "If you had a miscarriage, it was weeks ago," he told us.

In the following weeks we tried to wrap our heads around what had happened, and we also tried to conceive again. We didn't manage it for another nine months. This isn't an unusual amount of time, but it was agonizing to a couple who worried that they might not ever be able to have children. This was the year that Britney Spears' little sister got pregnant at 16, the year in which Pregnant at 16 became an MTV reality TV show. Several actresses over 40 gave birth to twins. I was jealous of everyone. Walking down a crowed Phoenix sidewalk with my husband on the way to a spring training game, I saw a man holding a six month old on his shoulders. I whispered to my husband, "if he drops her, lets grab her and run." I was only partly kidding. My pregnancy had been incredibly brief, but I was already a mother in my heart. Every child I saw was a child I loved. This has not gone away. I'm happy for all the children I see in happy families, worried for the ones who seem to need something more, and willing to take any of them if they need me.

When my son was born, it was 18 months after we learned of our miscarriage. He wasn't an easy baby. He couldn't latch on and he didn't sleep much, even for a newborn, perhaps a couple hours at a time, and had to be held constantly. There were nights I spent as a new mother, weeping while holding an inconsolable baby and debating whether or not to just reach for the formula the hospital sent us home with. Eventually I did, and my husband fed a happy baby while I hooked myself up to a machine, cleaned the machine, and tried to get thirty minutes of sleep before trying to feed him again, failing again, pumping again, cleaning again.

But I didn't regret it. I knew how much I wanted my son, knew from those months wondering if I'd ever be able to bear a child that loving children was a large part of what I wanted out of a full life. It was a really anxious, jealous, and painful part of my life, but this morning I finally fully accepted it as a gift. I don't have to wonder if my life would be fuller or richer without my children. I was given an opportunity to change my mind, to live without regret.


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