One of the greatest challenges of the current motherhood movement is to shape prominent thinking so that it recognizes mothers as human beings first. It is in fact a primary goal of contemporary and historical feminist movement as well—the recognition of women (whether mothers or not) as human beings first. That women are human beings with their own needs, drives, interests, passions, secrets, resentments, hungers, and angers remains, for many peoples around the world, a radical idea. We may see mothers as wombs first, caretakers first, nurturers, drivers, planners, self-sacrificers first, and then perhaps less than efficient at much of the rest of life because they are mothers first—compromised employees, disinvested friends, anti-intellectuals, women interrupted. And there is no shortage of blog posts (here’s one, for example) or blogs in entirety (here’s one, and another) devoted to mothers’ own struggle with seeing themselves in their wholeness.
But I think an even greater challenge for many mothers lies in shaping their own children’s thinking so that it recognizes them as human beings first. I believe I saw my mother as a mom and matriarch first, and perhaps even middle and last. I saw her rule about not going into her bedroom as not about her privacy and her right to it or about wanting to protect the sacred sexual space she was creating there with my dad; I saw it is another rule. I didn’t think about the labor she put into preparing our meals or the effort she put into getting us to contribute to yard work or house work; I didn’t think these were about her needing the children’s help in the matters of the home or about her wanting to have a family dwelling that felt good to her. It just felt like so much hassle to me. And even now, when I talk with her on the phone, I find myself yammering on and on about my life and asking her almost nothing about hers; I treat her as a mother first and I feel like I don’t do much in the way of honoring her personhood beyond that. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve a suspicion that I’m not.
I think it’s hard, too, for my own children to recognize my personhood (though perhaps better than I was/am), to see that I have my own desires and needs that are unrelated to motherhood, to see that my time with my partner is sacred to me, that sometimes having them sit and watch a show or movie with me is about my need—to connect with them, to be able to sit at last, to slip away to another time and place, and to fit all that into 30 or 60 or 90 minutes. I think it’s hard for them to see that leaving clean laundry in the basket until it is covered over and then intermingled with dirty laundry and then putting it all in the hamper again is insulting and demoralizing, to see that I can’t get out the door early in the morning because I have my own self to ready and my own things to gather and that if they want to leave earlier they have to help with the other stuff (the dog, the cereal bowls, the lunch, the crockpot for dinner). It’s hard for the older ones to see that I have a right to spaces that they do not enter into, to belongings that they don’t need to have access to—whether I’m making good use of them in their eyes or not, to not explain myself.
I think it’s hard for them to see that in each act of mothering I am also enacting some component of some other relationship at the very same time. So I’m never just a mother and often enough not even first a mother; I’m also a lover, a daughter, a therapy client, an insecure figure, an adult child working through life struggles, an exhausted or exhilarated employee, a writer who captures life in the moment so she can write about it and make sense of it in print later. It’s here, at home, and in the souls and minds of our own children, where some of the most piercing critiques of mothers and women in general are grounded, that some of hardest work lies for reshaping cultural views of maternal personhood.
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