“Difficult” Mothering

When the neurologist told my husband that she was diagnosing him with ALS—a terminal, incurable disease that leads to paralysis of all the voluntary muscles, including the diaphragm—I was wearing our four-month-old son in a carrier on my chest. We were devastated but not surprised; Googling his symptoms of muscle loss and hyperreflexia in the days leading up to the appointment had returned this result again and again. I hugged the baby closer to me and cried as I cradled his head.

My experience of motherhood has been atypical, to say the least—more than usually bound up with death, bodily vulnerability, and a sense of wanting to both slow down and speed up time. In many ways, I am entirely representative of my demographic of graduate-degree-holding, upper-middle-class, early thirty-somethings: it seems that everyone I know is moving on to their second kid right about now, taking generous-for-Americans parental leaves, and then returning to work, even if it might be cheaper to stay home than to pay for daycare or a nanny. But we have also, suddenly, entered another demographically typical sphere: a precarious position in which we are confronting the United States’ lack of a social safety net, whether in the form of universal health care or public preschool. With my husband now unable to physically participate in childcare, I have found myself in a traditional model of motherhood, doing nearly all of the day-to-day domestic work (with enormous recognition and respect for the staff of his incredible daycare, without which I could not function).

This shift in perspective has made it both fascinating and odd for me to confront the current surge in books about motherhood (which has seen, in 2018 alone, works by Sheila Heti, Meaghan O’Connell, Jacqueline Rose, Angela Garbes, and Laura June, following predecessors by Rivka Galchen, Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Ayelet Waldman, and Rachel Cusk, among others). These books’ admirable common purpose—to present the full range of experiences and emotions around motherhood—has produced a perhaps unforeseen outcome: an almost uniform emphasis on motherhood as hard. Childbirth is harder than expected. Breastfeeding didn’t work. One-year-olds, much less newborns, never sleep. “This is so hard. No one ever told me how hard it was going to be.” Reviews and jacket-copy invariably term this focus on the downsides of parenting “complexity.” Yet I can’t help myself from indulging in a bit of self-pity in response: “You think this is hard? Try doing all this while the one person who could help the most to make it easier is dying of ALS!”

Motherhood is, of course, hard and complex, even under the “best” of circumstances. But the gathering force of this particular rhetorical structure prompts me to ask: what does it mean for something to be hard? Is “hard” an adequate word for what these works are trying to convey? And what versions of motherhood—in both its challenges and its rewards—do we continue to leave out of the narrative?

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I sense that the current literary taste for books about the difficulty of motherhood is its own stereotype, with a huge variety of emotions, situations, and needs condensed into the word “hard.” It reminds me of the academic “cult of busy”: the only response to “How are you?” is “busy!”; the only response to “What is motherhood like?” is “hard!” Delving into the dark side of motherhood is seen as honest and brave while enjoyment of motherhood is mushy and suspect. The encounter with the new-mommy group is a set piece of Meaghan O’Connell’s and Rachel Cusk’s memoirs, with both experiencing a feeling of separation from these apparently contented mothers. As O’Connell writes, “In the library basement, I found no one like me. No one hated it enough.” While she later narrates her realization that she was suffering from postpartum depression during her son’s first year, the fact that one should hate caring for an infant is still taken for granted. Cusk, when confronted by a friend who chides her, “You mustn’t forget all the good things,” thinks to herself, “there aren’t any good things.” Her memoir is driven by a conviction that “the hardship of parenthood is so unrelievedly shocking that I feel driven to look deeper for its meaning, its cause.” These books share this contradictory stance: all mothers know how hard mothering is; no one will tell you; I am the one mother who will tell you.

I certainly chuckled with recognition at this image of “support groups” that only increase one’s sense of alienation. But it also seems the only intellectual approach to motherhood is disdain it, to see it as something necessarily non-intellectual that is maybe (but not predictably) rewarded with other forms of pleasure: love, joy, the fulfillment of one’s biological destiny. Rather than suppressing the truth that parenting is hard, in these works there is a conspicuous silence around another truth I have discovered: that it is so interesting. Not all the time, of course, but neither is my job, and no one would accuse that of being intellectually barren. (The one author who comes closest to exploring this facet is Rivka Galchen in Little Labors, but even she seems somewhat ashamed of her interest, apologizing for repeating a story about her daughter “to friends who will listen, as if it is interesting”). From the moment a light of awareness flicked on behind my son’s five-week-old eyes to his current insistence on doing everything “by self,” seeing his mind in the process of putting itself together has been one of the most intellectually re-orienting experiences of my life. Being a parent is entering an entirely new kind of human relationship, one that certainly offers knowledge in addition to feeling.

I’m hesitant about the narrative of hardship for another reason: it easily plays into the system it bemoans. Is the endless rediscovery that parenting is hard becoming a substitute for actual work to change its conditions? The focus of these books on the difficulties even privileged parents face leaves little room for consideration of how these difficulties intersect with racism, poverty, immigration status, lack of access to healthcare, and many other problems that plague modern motherhood globally; when the authors do acknowledge these challenges, they all recede as even “harder.” A telling example of this tendency occurs in Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers, a psychoanalytic account of what she describes as a social fear of mothers. At one point, she argues that “one reason why motherhood is often so disconcerting seems to be its uneasy proximity to death” and then cites as evidence for this statement disparate maternal death rates between white and BIPOC groups in the U.S.— rather than seeing the latter as an effect of racism in healthcare. Instead, these discrete, racist outcomes become part of the generalized expectation that mothers “carry the burden of everything that is hardest to contemplate about our society and ourselves.” Once again, “hard” shoulders a lot of analytical weight.

And at a certain point, the category of “difficult” collapses, ceasing to be able to hold the meaning we try to pour into it. My situation is hard because my husband can’t change a diaper, or throw our son up in the air, and at some point won’t be able to have a conversation with him—at just the moment when he is becoming a hilarious interlocutor. It’s also hard because our state offers no public preschool and our health insurance does not cover home health aides. These difficulties range from the intensely personal, almost unique to our circumstances, to the public policy failures that affect all American parents to a certain degree. I’m not sure how to talk about all of these things at once.

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But while I am being critical here, I also feel that I am being uncharitable; that the existence and growth of this body of literature is important and necessary, and that we have much to learn from it. There are many books on this list, and I certainly have not done justice to their diversity. What I find sometimes off-putting about these books—their emphasis on the difficulty of parenting and their lack of attention to other kinds of difficulty—may in fact be one of their virtues. In emphasizing the embodied physical experience of motherhood, these works take a usefully non-hierarchical approach to pain and suffering, offering serious consideration of the annoyance, exhaustion, and boredom that are everyday parts of parenting. They don’t feel the need to rank tragedies in the way American culture often prods us to do—as I often want to do when comparing my situation to others’.

A few days before his diagnosis, I told my husband that it couldn’t be ALS: that would be the worst thing that had happened to anyone we knew. It is a truly mind-numbing fact of our parenthood that the decline of his capabilities and the growth of our son’s have nearly coincided: he lost his ability to hold a fork just when our son began using one; Carl’s language has taken off this summer as Ady has started to mumble. But is this bolt-of-lightning tragedy, in fact, worse than having a baby and only then realizing you hate being a mother? I’m not so sure; as my therapist says, pain is pain is pain. The narrator of Sheila Heti’s autobiographical novel Motherhood approaches as similar realization as she weighs whether to have children, noting the banal fact that mothers and non-mothers are both just people: “there is an exact equivalence and an equality, equal in emptiness and equal in fullness, equal in experiences had and equal in experiences lost, neither path better and neither path worse, neither more frightening or less riddled with fear.” The questions of ability and mortality that seem particularly pertinent while mothering alongside ALS turn out to be shared among the healthy and ill, mothers and non-mothers.

Rose closes with a desire “to get such [complex] stories into the mainstream version of what it means to be a mother”; likewise, Angela Garbes notes, “We are still at a point where we lack stories—diverse stories—about pregnancy and motherhood. Only if we tell and hear these stories do we have a chance at understanding the experience, of making progress.” With this critical mass of books, we may be approaching a “mainstream version” of the dark sides of motherhood. But I would love to see now a turn toward a more nuanced depiction of its pleasures as well, an acknowledgment that it is not “all joy and no fun,” as the title of Jennifer Senior’s bestselling 2015 account of modern parenting had it. What I’ve learned from these books is that my experience of motherhood is not so atypical—just intensified. For everyone, some new understanding of one’s priorities, one’s place in the world, one’s preferred mode of relating to others emerges from the crucible of baby- and toddlerhood. In the same way that Heti concludes that mothers and non-mothers are equal, my experience and others’ are equal—not necessarily “harder,” but necessarily different. Arriving at this sense of equality rather than injustice is an ongoing effort that may be, for me, the hardest part of it all.

–Rachael Scarborough King is an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her first book, Writing to the World: Letters and the Origins of Modern Print Genres, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in May 2018. Follow her on Twitter @rachael_scar.