If an alien were to learn about early motherhood in America solely through the media produced by American mothers, she’d reasonably conclude that it is either a blissfully transformative experience punctuated by the occasional diaper blowout, or a series of traumatic indignities redeemed only by social norms that some people call “hormones” and others call “love.”
Before I got pregnant, I liked and wanted kids, but expected having them to more or less suck. The dreamy barefoot stuff was for other people — people who were (and are) about as alien to me as actual aliens. Which explains why, when friends have asked me what it’s like, I have told them, in so many words, that it’s not as bad as you’d think.
“Hard” is a word you hear a lot when women describe dealing with a tiny baby. To me, the adjective has so far felt qualitatively lacking — which most of my interlocutors chalk up to the fact that the baby himself has been a relatively “easy” one. Perhaps that’s true; until his sibling arrives, I have no other baby with whom to compare him. Nevertheless, my son was born a month early, in the terrifying first weeks of the pandemic, and in disturbing proximity to the refrigerated body trucks parked outside the hospital to manage the overflow of Covid-19 corpses. And while my husband and I got paid time off — crucially, at the same time — the coronavirus meant we barely saw anyone, let alone had help, until late summer. “Easy” doesn’t quite do it.
One friend, a new mom and doctor of philosophy, remarked that the experience of bringing a child into the world explodes our “normative frameworks,” rendering the categories of “easy” and “hard” unhelpful. I suspect she’s right, but there’s also a plain normalcy to it that you find in any good relationship. So I keep coming back to an offhand comment that my friend’s dad made at her baby shower a few years ago. “When they need things, it’s not like you’re doing it for them,” he said, of crying infants. “You just do it. It’s like scratching an itch.”
How did scratching itches get so fraught? How did my “not-so-bads,” uttered with what I assure you is still genuine surprise and enchantment, become what passes for a ringing endorsement of… having babies? You don’t have to look very far to find reasons upon reasons baked into American life: a non-existent welfare state, internalized misogyny, a lack of affordable childcare, and the depressing realization that even if you find it, it’s someone else who’s probably getting screwed — by you. That’s not even taking into account the luxury problems of “dealing with insurance” and “deciding what baby crap to buy.” Babies or none, capitalism has a way of poisoning the bathwater.
There’s another pervasive (and related) force that colors our perceptions of motherhood: content. It is with great regret that I will now repeat a terrible conservative talking point: there’s a ton of anti-baby propaganda out there. In my experience, all social media, the vast majority of written articles, and most books written by mothers specifically about being mothers — whether positive or negative — are so lame, so bleak, so cringe that they make the whole enterprise of mothering off-putting.
It starts before the babies even exist, in the form of celebrity baby bumps, targeted egg-freezing industry ads, and the indelible image of Anne-Marie Slaughter injecting herself with hormones in an airplane bathroom so that she can (but, spoiler, won’t!) have it all. You should have wanted this years ago, it says. You’d better get on it before it’s too late! It continues through pregnancy through message boards, support groups, endless prenatal screenings, and those infamous pre-GMO comparisons of fetuses to fruit. Finally, it descends with full force postpartum, informing you that if you aren’t blissed out and glowing, you are probably inhabiting a state of utter and total despondence — especially if you’re not breastfeeding. Or is it because you are?! Weeks after my son was born, an acquaintance sent me a book filled with encouraging words for parents having a hard day. Produced offspring? NICE WORK! Ate a meal? CONGRATS! Took a shower? YOU DID IT, MAMA! The book, and its underlying premise, irked me so deeply that I briefly considered having more babies right away, just to spite it. I made an un-ecological point of showering not once, but twice a day, to show someone, anyone, that it was possible. In the shower, I wondered how politically and creatively impoverished our society must be to produce a text like this; I also considered how out of proportion my reaction to the book was, and how it must say something terrible about my entitlement and lack of empathy. At last, I put the damn thing out on the curb, where someone made off with it in a matter of minutes. Congrats!
As visceral as my distaste is for this wretched book, I know it’s not really about the book; it’s that the situation for mothers (especially working mothers) is apparently so universally anxiety-inducing that such a book is filling some need for someone, somewhere. Our content has merely caught up, and, with algorithmic assistance, over-corrected in that direction. What else can account for the over-supply of first-person articles about babies and pandemics, babies and climate change, babies and babies and babies and more babies? It is another reminder of the alien’s binary: choose to wholeheartedly bless this mess, or feel so deeply and personally afflicted by the travails of gender, labor, and reproduction that it becomes difficult to enjoy (or admit to enjoying) the nice bits. The political and economic conditions in which we have babies have apparently become so abject for the very people who feel this shouldn’t happen to them that liberal feminists have lowered their collective expectations of finding actual pleasure through motherhood. The result is that child-rearing has been reduced to a desperate drudgery that perpetuates itself through various forms of low and high media — whether it’s body-positive photos of people’s postpartum stretch marks on Instagram or Rachel Cusk’s bloodless musings on sleep deprivation.
I try to ignore the stuff on Instagram, and I didn’t like Cusk’s A Life’s Work much either — too whiny. It wasn’t until my second pregnancy that I grasped the dark depth of Cusk’s ironies. She hated the whole thing so much that she went and did it again.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is working on a nonfiction book for Riverhead about liminal jurisdictions.