I asked yesterday on Facebook, “What can I write a blog post about?” and a few people responded. The consensus seemed to be: write about my daughter Lily and her art, and write about mothering.
This brought up a pang in me, or maybe several. Or, let’s face it, a whole tangle of emotions. Enough to write about, in fact.
First, there is the whole question of what is the blog for? Is it to respond to the desires of my readers? (I don’t fault my friends for genuinely responding to my question, mind you. I am questioning whether I should have asked in the first place, or whether I should have modified the question.) Is it to examine and tangle and untangle the thoughts and emotions that move through me, sometimes fluttering, sometimes blasting? Is it to serve me? Is it to serve others? Is it to become a better person or a better mother?
I think if I can answer what the blog is for, it might help me respond to the inquiries about Lily and mothering, and why it feels challenging to me. Because I do think the central purpose of this blog, for me, is about meeting my own emotional/creative needs and being witnessed. I don’t think it takes away the other needs that can be met, the needs of readers who want their curiosity satisfied, or want to see their own thoughts and emotions mirrored, or feel challenged by someone who might think/feel differently. But the primary purpose? Let’s call it selfish.
As anyone who’s spent time examining the current Stories about motherhood in this culture can attest (yes, Stories with a ponderous, capital S, with a punishing weight), a prevailing Story is that of the Selfish Mother and how evil she is. She can be selfish for just about any reason. It hardly matters what choices she makes, in fact—those choices can always be framed in the context of selfishness. She goes to work? She stays home? She thinks about her own needs or the needs of others besides her children? She dares to not fade into the background like a ghost? She requests to be heard and seen? Heresy, I tell you. Any mother who has needs and insists that those needs are important is a heretic.
I don’t believe that when my friends asked to hear more about Lily or my thoughts on mothering that they intended to provoke this particular line of thought, but it’s what comes up for me. (Yes, friends, I see your good intentions, and I know your hearts—I know you don’t want to elicit a painful rush of feeling in me.) I think when I asked “What can I write a blog post about?” I was in part asking, “What do you want to see about me? How can I connect with you? I feel far away from you. I feel unseen. I feel like my voice has been muted and I’m trying to find it again.” I realize that if I had had the wherewithal to articulate it in that way from the get-go, it would have gone differently.
When the only suggestions I received were to write about my daughter, her art, or my relationship with her, I felt pushed aside. I felt like people didn’t understand why I maintain a blog. I felt like I was being told, “You should fade away. You should showcase your child. That’s what good mothers do.”
I do showcase my child rather frequently on Facebook, I should add. And I do feel like that’s a fairly appropriate medium in which to do so. I like to post items related to Lily (with her consent): pictures of her, interesting or funny things she says, art that she’s been making. These are, invariably, far more popular (as evidenced by “likes” or comments) than anything I post about myself. I don’t want to set this up as some sort of popularity contest between me and my child, mind you, but I think it’s important to point out. I love Lily, and I love that others love and appreciate her. But it’s not that much of a stretch sometimes to feel like I should be a Lily-vessel and a Lily-facilitator to the exclusion of being myself. That message, regardless of intent, comes through.
It’s complicated further by the fact that I deeply love being Lily’s mother, and engaging fully in this most demanding role, by far, than any other I’ve ever had. I don’t intend to demean mothering. It’s sacred to me. I do, actually, want to write about mothering and what it means to me.
But in the context of this blog? I started this blog in 2008 (about a year after Lily was born) with only the vaguest of notions of its purpose. I wanted a creative outlet. I wanted to put my own ideas Out There; I wanted to revive my long-silent writing voice; I wanted to think out loud, and artfully, if possible; I wanted witnesses. I wanted to center my own mind and heart in a place that was mostly about me and the way I see the world. I wanted my own voice to be a revolutionary force, at least for myself, and possibly for others. I wanted to make experiments in vulnerability.
I still struggle with the prescribed boundaries of what is meant to be “public” or “private.” What do I need to keep private about myself? What about people who are close to me, like Lily? How much of that privacy is for meeting our own needs, and how much of it is about not rocking the collective boat? The more Lily grows, the more aware I feel of her preferences, her desire to influence how she is perceived, as she strides into her gradually-maturing selfhood. I don’t want to foist my own preferences and needs on her. Over time, I’ve felt more and more that I need to have a public voice about supposedly “private” matters, that it’s those matters that are the most relevant and important for me to write about. My blog is public. Most things I post on Facebook are public (a decision I made over a year ago). Lily is such a huge part of my life that it would be silly not to include her in my posts, but at the same time, I feel protective of her needs, some of which she hasn’t even grown into yet. Some might even argue that Lily isn’t capable of providing full consent to my posts that include her, that she can’t possibly understand all the implications. I tend to disagree (at least in her middle childhood)—I think we are in the midst of actively learning about consent by practicing it and talking about it, so it’s a good example of learning through real life. In the meanwhile, I do avoid posting anything about her that I think she might feel embarrassed by, now or in the future, although I can’t prevent whether she might eventually feel horribly embarrassed by me being me. (Cue the chorus of parents who are nodding vigorously, wondering how they ended up with teenagers who are so mortified to be seen or associated with them.)
Back to the issue of how mothers are supposed to be invisible. Mothers are, after all, women, and among women, mothers are supremely expected to take on the role of servant, at least in this thoroughly warped and insane culture. We don’t have a culture of mothers being accorded even remotely-adequate support, respect, and love. Show me the mother who is getting all her needs met—go ahead, show me. And I said needs, not wants. Who is getting enough sleep? Who is getting enough time to herself? Who is not besieged with some variety of judgment or anxiety? The cultural beliefs that mothers should be servants, that mothers are subordinate to the needs of their children (or just about anyone else), that mothers should be largely invisible as individuals—these deny mothers their full humanity. These beliefs are deeply damaging and oppressive, and they are put forth both consciously and unconsciously from all directions.
I believe that mothers absolutely must put themselves first, if they are to live fulfilled lives AND be decent mothers to their children. There’s a saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” There’s a reason for that. Why do you think so few people are happy? Mama ain’t happy. And that goes from the planetary scale of Mother Gaia to the very individual human scale. And if nobody is putting Mama first, then Mama should put herself first. Call me a defender for the Selfish Mama. But everything, everything flows from there. If Mama’s needs are met, she is the most generous being you ever saw, patient, kind, able to respond in spades to the needs of others, as well as able to clearly discern and communicate her boundaries. If Mama is silenced, put down, ignored, unloved, or otherwise abused in a variety of heinous ways, with her tribe scattered to the wind, her unique gifts devalued, AND expected to be an ever-giving fount of service to others? No, it doesn’t work that way.
Selfish Mama is a bit of a misnomer, if by being “selfish” we mean “more able to address the needs of others by attending to one’s own.” It’s long past time to dismantle the notion of maternal selfishness. To quote Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, I don’t want simply to be “the place the arrow shoots off from” but “to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
May we recognize mothers, first and foremost, as human beings with their own visions, gifts, needs, and voices. This is not an issue of obscuring the needs of children, but an issue of basic respect for all people, mothers included.
May we endeavor to create and strengthen the relational web of mutual support that uplifts all of us.