Veronika with her daughter Agnes
As Mother’s Day approaches, I’ve been reading some reflections on its significance, among them a piece in the New York Times by a late baby boomer. Growing up in the 1960s Margaret Rankl followed the well-trodden path to marriage and motherhood, despite imagining herself as a professional woman from girlhood
Her own mother, though she “chafed mightily at stay-at-home motherhood,” believed she was “born to be a mother.” Rankl herself has shaken off that cultural expectation of women, without being able to deny her own cherished experience of being a mother.
Reflections tinged with impatience about social expectations on women to become mothers, give way in the end to a fond remembrance of when her children were young and beheld her as the most significant person in their lives.
On the day, she writes, “I will remember all the years when Mother’s Day meant crayoned cards and plaster-of-Paris handprints and weedy bouquets made of clover.”
I believe Rankl is voicing the deep confusion many women experience about what they are supposed to find fulfilling in life as “empowered” modern women. Haven’t we been told again and again that marriage and motherhood is a “shackle” for women? (I’m looking at you Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Sanger.)
Though content to have been at the centre of her young children’s existence, she is reluctant to be identified primarily as a mother. And this cognitive dissonance is real for too many women today. I admit that I felt some of it when I became a mother.
As a university-educated, ambitious young woman, getting married at age 21 and having two children by the time I was 23 was an unlikely choice for me. But it was fun rebelling against modern expectations to put off family until the eleventh hour.
Four years later, I have no regrets, but the tension between motherhood and my intellectual passions has been very real and, until recently, it was a quandary I did not know how to address. There’s no one way to do mothering well, and plenty of ways to do it badly.
Of course, I love my son Reuben (3), and daughter Agnes (2) to bits. But I also love writing, and get withdrawal symptoms when I don’t get the opportunity for it. I’m talking about no mere hobby. But trying to balance personal passion with raising small children has been about as simple as assembling a Boeing 747.
Yet I make sure I get that opportunity. I try not to feel guilty about it either, because I know it makes me a better mother. Let me explain. Or rather, let another woman explain, who does it so much better…
I recently read One Beautiful Dream by American author Jennifer Fulwiler. This is a woman who signed the contract for the publication of her first book shortly after giving birth to her sixth child — the kind of woman I usually love to hate as some sort of self-congratulatory over-achiever. She had to be, right?
Wrong. She clarified things in a very timely fashion for me by saying something like this: “I knew that if I didn’t have a creative outlet during those years my children were young, I would view that season of life as just something to plough through. By incorporating my writing into my life, however crazy or overloaded that seemed, I could relish those years of small children more.”
In another place she puts it in a slightly different way. She had tried living two parallel identities, as author and as mother, and for years she presumed that “never the twain shall meet.” She came to see, however, that she had to intertwine these two identities and incorporate her family into the process of writing her book. Sometimes, too, it meant putting her writing on hold.
In explaining that the life experience motherhood gives her enhanced her writing, Fulwiler affirmed in me the conviction that to nuture my personal passion is to embrace motherhood more fully. Being able to write gives me the energy and moral boost to be the best self I can be for my kids.
Though both Rankl and Fulwiler are mothers and writers, only Fulwiler was able to articulate a cohesive vision of those two identities. Motherhood is a concept many women need likewise to re-imagine, departing from the zeitgeist’s catchcry that liberty and empowerment is only to be achieved through prioritising my individuality.
Instead, I’m learning that motherhood means adapting personal passions to an environment inhabited by small children with high needs. That’s no small task.
A normal day in my life resembles a party hosted by Holly Golightly. I used to be a control freak, so that had to go (still working on it). And most days my living room looks like Dresden in 1945. I used to be a neat freak, so a little bit of me dies inside whenever I see the house turned upside down.
Some days, I don’t get to write. But when a rare moment of peace time occurs, I grab it, and write with an urgency and unexpected proficiency I would not have if I had hours of solitude to do it. (Although I’d be dishonest if I didn’t mention the two days of childcare, which sees me through the rest of the week!)
For me, writing is an oasis. For the next mum, it will be something else. But find me a mother who hasn’t got a personal passion she needs an outlet for, and I’ll eat my keyboard. Getting my thoughts organised and written down is the calm within the chaos. And you can’t know real calm without chaos.
Kids are the best thing that ever happened to me; I don’t care if that’s a hackneyed phrase. I feel hackneyed most days, so it’s apt. Hackneyed – yet happy. In part because I just wrote this.
Veronika Winkels writes from Melbourne, Australia.
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