“There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more,” offers Megan K Stack in Women’s Work.
“Our expectations of mothers seem to have increased as our attitudes toward women in the workplace have liberalized,” concludes Jennifer Senior in her All Joy and No Fun book on parenting.
“We use children,” Sheila Hetti suggests in Motherhood, “to erase the boundary between the spiritual and the physical, and finally become whole”.
“Motherhood is an encounter, a shadow in mirrors, a beast lying low in the grass in the field,” writes Anna Prushinskaya in her defiantly titled first book A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother.
“We are now witnessing what feminist sociologist Angela McRobbie has described as a ‘neo-liberal intensification of mothering’ – perfectly turned-out, middle-class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and marriages, whose permanent glow of self-satisfaction is intended to make all women who do not conform to that image (because they are poorer or black or their lives are just more humanly complicated) feel like total failures, ” writes Jacqueline Rose in Mothers: An Essay On Love and Cruelty.
Having recently published a children’s art book I am often in (virtual) conversation with reviewers. Each time I get one of them to commit publishing one of my blog posts I am invariably asked to include a bio. To my own surprise, instead of focusing on the topic at hand, I find myself obsessing over my bio. You would think writing two or three mostly self promotional lines wouldn’t present any sort of hardship for any writer worth her salt but it has become a thorn in the flesh. On the brink of turning forty, an artist by profession and a jack of all trades by necessity, a poet and a picture book creator, a disenchanted wife and an engaged social crusader, a daughter and a mother, an avid reader and a good baker, how do I want people to see me? Which facet of my multidimensional persona do I choose to put in front of them as worthy for further examination? Unfortunately, the choice has already been made. No matter what else I am (decent at chess) or aspire to one day become (a voyager of distant lands), to the world I am first and foremost a mother.
I simply happen to have birthed my two wonderful, lovely, mischievous children in the twenty-first century, a time when motherhood is “on trend.” Instamoms and their beatific, pastel world of perfect toddlers are on trend. Venting mothers of teenagers are on trend. Mothers breaking the law to snowplow the way for their college-age children are on trend. Mothers engaging in erratic behavior because of the empty nester syndrome are on trend. A myriad of magazine articles and almost as many books have made The Mother a global icon, instantly recognizable by her worry induced frown lines. When she is not feeling guilty about not doing enough, she is fretting about overdoing it.
Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with the tiny humans you carry in your womb for nine months and in your heart for the rest of your life. Motherhood has been elevated (demoted, perhaps?) to the realm of lifestyle. Once you have children, you may feel like the same person, but the world apparently finds it hard to believe. The reigning cultural narrative, emboldened by savvy marketing and unsubstantiated exaltation of home life, allows no room for mothers to be complex women with worthwhile ideas, lively emotions, and intense cravings. Instead, someone who isn’t your child will address you as “Mom” at the pediatrician’s office, you will join “Mommy and Me” classes and make peace with the fact that movies like Bad Moms and Moms’ Night Out are deemed funny although they sprout tired, toothless cliches.
The world won’t grant mothers many opportunities (if any) to simply add the mantle of motherhood to our authentic selves without allowing it to become all-encompassing. It seems as if the moment our society finally learned to treat children as people with desires and rights of their own, it stopped ascribing any value to the desires and rights of the mothers. On TV, moms are regularly portrayed as a strange breed apart from regular people: wise yet neurotic, important but silly, protective yet focused on the trivial. In real life, they have internalized such cultural undercurrents to the point of no return: sugar-free birthday cakes and Pinterest-perfect birthday parties wasted on one-year-olds have become the calling card of aspirational motherhood.
Turns out, motherhood is the thorn in my flesh after all. For all the love for my children, and make no mistake, I love them fiercely, I am angry with the over-validation of motherhood. I am an entity in the world, with a body and a personhood to go with it, and the weight of my momentous yet banal existence should not lie solely on the fact that I was born with a uterus. Although I feel so fortunate to have this demanding, confusing and joyful experience of motherhood, I chose not to include “mother” in my bio.
Odeta Xheka is an artist and author in a quest to connect people with art in truly meaningful and enriching ways starting from early childhood. Most recently, she has published Here Comes Ingo, a picture book invested in open ended creative experiences.