Thanks to Anittah for passing along. Here’s a beautiful piece by Lauren Apfel of omnimom.net.
Sometimes I do get annoyed that I inevitably get more tied up in parenting than Chris does, and reminding myself that biology/evolution more or less programmed Madeline to cling to me doesn’t do much to quell my frustration. I’m also somewhat worried that I’m spoiling her when I get home because I feel bad that I don’t have much time with her anymore. But after reading this, I suppose I’m more content that things are as they should be, and I’ll go on kangaroo carrying her.
Gonna save this one for stormy days.
When I think about what a mother is, I tend to think about what a father is not. My mother was day in and day out, my father was summers and some weekends. My mother was the endless overseeing of schoolwork and driving to lessons, my father was special occasions. My mother listened to my problems from the end of the bed, my father from the end of a phone line. This arrangement was, in part, a product of our individual situation: I am the child of divorce. But I am also a child of the seventies, an era when gender roles in the home were more clear cut than they are now. Even if my parents had stayed together, I’m not sure how different things would have been.
They both loved me. I would never argue that fathers don’t love their children as much as mothers do, I would only argue that their love often manifests itself differently. Because there is love and there is presence and they are not the same gift. Most mothers are present in a way that fathers are not. And I don’t just mean physically present. I mean emotionally present. I mean, to borrow Jennifer Senior’s perfect phrase, they are “more alive to the emotional undercurrents” of family life. A simple observation with a profound effect. It is at the heart of why, even in 2014, as fathers shoulder increasing amounts of childcare, mothers still perceive a palpable inequality in this arena, irrespective of whether they are employed outside the home or not. And their perception goes hand in hand with the facts: “women, on average, still devote nearly twice as much time to ‘family care’…as men,” according to Senior.
Growing up, I was blissfully unaware of these gender lines. My mom did everything because she was the one who was there, not because she was a woman (though if I had taken the next logical step, I would have realized she was there because she was the woman). Plus, she was raising her daughters in the twilight of feminism, with the genuine, entrenched belief that we could do anything we wanted to do. For my generation, gender equality was no longer a battle cry, it was the air we breathed. The year I enrolled at Yale was the first year more female applicants were accepted than male. But my presence at that university, along with the other young women who made up 51% of my class, didn’t feel like an achievement. It felt like our right.
* * *
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, the sands under my long-held view of gender equality began to shift. From the moment those two pink lines appeared on the test, summoned there by the magical workings of my body, my husband and I were not the same anymore. Up until that point, our relationship had been thoroughly modern. We shared the housework, my aspirations were not subordinate to his. And now, together, we were expecting a baby, who would need to be cared for by some combination of our efforts, the details of which had yet to be determined. But that baby was nine long months away from existing separately from me, not him. I took that pregnancy test and, within minutes, I was staring down the barrel of the enormous responsibility that lay before me and me alone: the responsibility of growing a life. My husband stood next to me, but his part was over. For now.
He could forget about the baby, live out the other parts of his life in a way that I couldn’t. Not really. Not with the bouts of vomiting. Not with the swell of my belly making ordinary movement impossible. Not with the burning reflux that kept me sleeping upright for the last, lurching months before birth. And not with this creature constantly poking me, prodding me as if to say: “I’m here, Mom, I’m coming!” In a sense, the other parts of my life had already been consumed. “I hear you, baby,” I would whisper, pressing my hand against the tiny foot projecting under my rib, as if we were making a pact. “I hear you.”
I was a mother for 41 weeks and 1 day before my husband became a father. And then the baby was born and I put him to my breast, again and again and again, only me, every time, and in many ways I still felt like the sole parent. For six more months, the weight of responsibility that comes with sustaining human life from your own flesh fell on me. Six months after that, the baby continued to nurse, to seek me out because he was conditioned to do so, though Daddy could now give the odd meal when he wasn’t at work. And then at the end of the first year, after twenty-one months of being physically bound to this baby by one tether or another, I weaned him and, in doing so, mother and father were finally on a par. Except, with that kind of prelude, I would hardly describe the playing field as level.
My fierce attachment to my son—and my subsequent decision to stay home with him—did not feel, at the time, like the mewl of circumstance. It felt like the roar of biology. Not every woman frames her experience of early motherhood in the context of nature: I am aware of the danger of drawing lines between males and females based on anatomy, and how unfashionable it is. But this was my reality. For close to two years, my body was awash with hormones that made it do things like let down milk at the sound of my baby’s cry. My son cried and my body knew he was hungry, without so much as a word uttered. It was astonishing to me: a physical reaction to a stimulus that had no such effect on that baby’s father. My darling husband who could sleep through the baby’s howls, who stood guard over the baby’s door, when we agreed on sleep training, because he could bear the siren-like sounds of distress and I, without somebody to hold me back, could not.
* * *
Mothers tend to be more involved with their young children partly because we have different standards than fathers, which we refuse to “compromise” and so we bear the brunt of potentially transferrable tasks. And partly because—and this is the key, I think—motherhood is more definitional than fatherhood. “Women, on average,” Senior writes, “assigned a significantly larger proportion of their self-image to their mother identity than…men did to their father identity. Even women who worked full-time considered themselves more mother than worker by about 50 percent.” “Father” might be one role among many, but “Mother” is a hat less easily taken off. Being continually awake to our children’s needs, embracing the responsibility for their emotional, as much as their physical, welfare, is how we measure the strength of the connection between us. It is, in turn, how we fuel that large portion of our identities.
There are, of course, fathers who are knee-deep in their children’s lives, a small percentage of whom are even primary caregivers or “pilot” parents, fathers who clip fingernails and fight the sickly pang of abandonment at nursery school drop-off. Likewise, some mothers are more detached, more typically “paternal” in their relationship with their kids. It’s not a matter of right or wrong. I’m not sure it’s something you can choose. It seems to be a brew of personality and cultural influence and, perhaps above all, the model of your own parents, whether you seek to emulate it or redress it.
I might be the one who is “more alive to the emotional undercurrents” of family life because of the biological pull I have felt since my kids were born. Or it might be because I have taken to heart my own mother’s example that parental love is a kind of ethereal presence. My mother wasn’t a hoverer or even home with us for the whole of our childhood, but she was our sun, the constant warmth under which we bloomed. My father was the moon. He was a part of our sky, but his presence waxed and waned with the tides. What is motherhood to me? It is a light so bright that sometimes it blots out everybody else.
Lauren Apfel is originally from New York, but now lives in Glasgow, Scotland (thanks to the Brit she married). A published classicist turned stay-at-home mom of four (including twins), Lauren thinks less about the Greeks these days and more about parenting, the tragedy and comedy alike. She writes regularly at www.omnimom.net. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.