I have an obsession with bad mothers. The mothers in my books are absent or cruel or violent, and all of them push at the limits of what they believe motherhood to be. But I stay away from writing about my own life as a mother, partly because I like to keep my home life and my authorly one separate, but also because I’m not so clear-headed that I can put into words the way I feel when my son wakes up at five thirty in the morning asking for chocolate. As a mother, I’m a tangled, shivery, blank-minded mess.
Lately, a lot of my friends have become or are about to become mothers. We talk about diapers and toileting, solid food and preschools, but we rarely talk about the one question that I think every mother asks herself: Should I have had children at all?
There is no way to say this, in public or in secret, without feeling guilty. Without a doubt, we love our children. My son is an extraordinary human and I hope that I can be the mother he deserves. But we have to be bracingly honest. Being a mother means forgetting about your own needs. It means second-guessing all of your decisions whenever your child experiences a setback. It means working your fingers raw just so your family can eat or sleep in a room that isn’t filthy.
It is in these moments, when you’re so tired that you can’t even pull on your own socks, that you begin to remember your old life or fantasize about a new one unhampered by dependents and a mortgage and the practical car you joylessly drive. Without all this, you think, it would be so easy.
There are moments of wonder and laughter and unfettered joy, of course. Like when my son sings “No Diggity” and dances as he imagines a rapper would. Or when he wakes up from a nap and asks, groggily, for quiet cuddles. But in our dark moods, when we can’t face making another fibre-rich, sensible dinner, we compare those moments to the happy ones we had before, when we were younger, more beautiful and selfishly worried about our last haircut.
I’ve met women who were fulfilled by motherhood, for whom motherhood has made their lives whole in a way nothing else ever has. I envy them. Because motherhood, for me, has been a series of doubts and questions that have never been answered satisfactorily.
There is one thing I try to remember, one thing that I think holds true for every mother, no matter how she acts or feels. Motherhood isn’t about making us happy; after all, it’s not our children’s job to bestow happiness on us. Motherhood is about looking at your child and feeling like your heart is ragged from generating so much love. It’s about knowing that you would fight demons and wolves and boa constrictors to protect your family. It’s about this child and his trust and knowing that the best thing you can do is never betray it. It’s about breathing until you can do better. Because you have to, every day.
So when I ask myself if I should have had children at all, I have to remember that the answer is irrelevant. Because my son is here with me, right now. Because what our life has become transcends my memory of what it used to be or what it could be. Because he goes to bed, knowing that I will come and get him in the morning. Because when the exhaustion passes, I find a stronger me emerging from my insides, one that I could have never predicted or described, and who will get me through another day.