Embracing mother loneliness, and defying the culture of sharing our mothering experience | Leslie Contreras Schwartz
In this age in which we are encouraged to connect in real time, at least superficially through curated images and updates, it seems helpful for mothers to find community through social media. We post our problems in selective groups, seek the hivemind when we’ve encountered one of those people, say, that have mistaken us for our child’s nanny, or asked an inappropriate question about our child’s ethnic background or skin color. I admit it: it feels good for the immediate feedback, the idea of support, the justified outrage and appropriately worded posts of solidarity from our network. Immediate feedback to: Why won’t he sleep in his bed? Does your daughter do this? Can you believe what someone did to my child? It feels good to post a picture of one of my daughters, or son, a family picture, and to feel like we are seen.
But there is no cure for mother loneliness, the singular kind of loneliness that comes with the all-enveloping preoccupation with raising small humans, from the day you bring the infant home and see that you, perhaps with a partner or a spouse, will often spend long moments alone figuring out what to do with that human. Yes, it helps to have multiple hands, to have people help with practical, necessary tasks that single parents somehow, impossibly, are able to do on their own. But I am referring to the experience of mothering, the in-the-moment discoveries, dull as a doorknob drudgery, and the hours and hours spent giving care to a life, the best you can, and not assist in sustaining that life, but allowing that person to thrive. It is the dilemma at the heart of mythologies, of whole religions, civilizations, and now it is only you.
And since, let’s face it, even in 2019 the bulk of parenting responsibilities fall upon the mother (although I am privileged to have a feminist spouse who shares equally or more in domestic duties), the culture of praising the Mother Martyr, the one-who-does-anything and expresses-no-private-needs kind of mother, this occupation feels lonesome, or to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, feels “single-handed,” “exclusive or unaided, without the participation of others.” Because there is no single motherhood; the myth of mothering and its black and white depictions are false. We can share all we want; it does feel good to have a long phone call, a night out with other parents. But the daily business is experienced in solitary.
Thus, we fill our pages seeking small pings of connection, a team-work kind of feeling through our shared pictures, our performative descriptions of What Our Kids Said Today or What My Kid Did Today. We all know the woman who posts her son’s bathroom moments, in full color. “He did it!” I cringe to imagine my mother having had the same opportunity to share my childhood with the masses. “She’s morbidly shy! How do I make people think she’s not slow!,” my skinny face in giant dark glasses smiling above a ruffled dress up to the neck for all my mother’s friends to consider. “Help! She’s going to be weird!”
I find strength in loneliness, and I am finding that there is great power in particular in being Mother Lonely. There is a secret joy in experiencing your children—in all the varied emotions from despair and frustration to the elation and sweetness—and keeping it private, un-sharable. People who co-parent understand that we experience the same moments with our family often with wildly different resulting narratives. It’s impossible, even for a close relationship, to share that singular experience—and we shouldn’t have to.
The over-used phrase “it takes a village” often comes with guilt attached to it. Where’s my village? Why don’t I have one? Why can’t I find one? Do I live differently than my ancestors? But the temple that is motherhood has no village, or rather, it is an extravagant place full of the parts of ourselves that shimmer and glint in multiplicities: our many-layered selves that come to sit with us. It is good to have communion, to sit and have meals with other parents, to hear advice from elders, to spend time with our people that help us to parent. But this mothering is a solitary act, experienced without the participation of other minds privy to that temple. Myself alone, another OED listing states. To go it alone. It goes against the group mindset that we need to share everything, to be in constant community. We ourselves are plenty enough.
I come from a long line of martyrs, whose goodness has been compared to Mary herself, all-giving, self-annihilating kind of mothers. Since the Middle Ages, when the the Church institutionalized the whore-virgin-mother, to be anything else is unfit, unseemly, not right, to varying degrees. In our age, it’s being the social doter, the over-sharer, the performance of mothering, the pressing up against of our real time with others’ real time, and playing the part in all the social ways of dress and behavior. Let us fit into no category. Let us be outside of them. Let us be lonely, exquisitely, the experience ours alone, too particular and strange that only we are privy to the story.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a multi-genre writer from Houston. She is the author of the collection of poems, Nightbloom & Cenote (St. Julian Press, May 2018). For more work, visit lesliecschwartz.com.
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