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The Complexity of Motherhood in America

The Complexity of Motherhood in America

Nightbitch, the titular mom at the center of Rachel Yoder’s forthcoming domestic satire, isn’t like the other moms, the ones we’re used to seeing in literature and on daytime TV.

Nightbitch lurks on the edges of the local mommy and me activity groups, preferring not to be absorbed into the groups of chipper, chattering moms. She retreats from her career, choosing not to juggle both work and motherhood, instead taking on the role of primary caregiver while her husband is away for work five days a week, living his life in various hotels. She wears the same lounge pants seven days in a row, allows her hair to grow wild and greasy and untamed. She begins to grow a pelt of coarse hair on the back of her neck, to slink around the neighborhood on all fours, to seize small animals in her jaw, to howl at the moon.

The mother of Nightbitch (Doubleday, July 2021) is without a support system, without an outside identity. And in the wake of the anger and resentment that build inside of her, she eventually turns feral.

Nightbitch is unlike any other book I’ve read about motherhood. And it sticks with me. This is because we are so resistant to speaking openly about the dark side of motherhood. But in transforming her novel’s protagonist quite literally into a wild, raging animal, Yoder taps into a side of our experience we often turn away from.

Our Reverence for Motherhood

We are a culture descended from the original mother, Eve. And though Eve saddled women with original sin, she was eventually eclipsed by Mary, mother to Jesus, both of whom are venerated within the Christian and Catholic traditions.

Particularly in Latinx culture, families direct their devotion toward the Mother Mary, praying before depictions of the Madonna and Child. In these paintings and small statuettes, Mary gazes adoringly at the baby held tight to her chest, the literal picture of motherly love, her head bent downward in subservience to her child.

And in these images, there is also an absence. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived — a miracle.  And so, she sets an example for us all. She is a paragon of single motherhood, of the woman who holds her family together with strong maternal instinct and sheer will.

Is it any wonder that we now hold motherhood up as woman’s true purpose, throwing baby showers in celebration of the life growing within them, gushing about the way they seem to glow from within, rubbing their bellies as if they were crystal balls? As if they held the answers to the universe?

Motherhood as Woman’s Default

In fact, when women remain childless — whether by choice or by biological difficulty — they are bombarded by all manner of rude and invasive questions. Ones that shame them for their supposed lack.

I still remember the three and a half years my husband and I spent trying to conceive a child. The bitterness I felt at friends’ pregnancy announcements. The tests I had to undergo because the problem was assumed to be my own, though male infertility contributes to more than half of all cases of global childlessness.

Later, when I finally produced my small, perfect child, people asked when I’d have my second. When I explained that I had no intention of popping out more babies, people told me I would change my mind. One man even asked if I had been “neutered.”

This insistence that we breed is baked into our history. It’s in the way we’ve policed sexuality, insisting that the true purpose of penetrative intercourse is procreation (one of the alleged reasons we demonize homosexuality). It’s in the way we’ve criminalized contraceptive access. In its darkest form, described by Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body, it’s in the way Black slaves were subjected to sexual violence in order to produce more slaves for their masters.

Later on, it’s in the way women must step back from their careers in order to raise their child, while the same is not expected of men. It’s in the way that, during the pandemic, women’s working days have been more often derailed while their husbands have locked themselves in home offices, unwilling to be disturbed.

In fact, the only women historically excluded from these expectations are working-class white women and women of color, as they are instead expected to ignore their own mothering instincts in order to raise the children of middle- and upper-class women.

Which is far easier to do when they’re not birthing babies of their own, though this is only one of the reasons Black, Puerto Rican, Indigenous, and other marginalized populations have been subject to forced sterilization over the years.

A Lack of Support for Mothers

Despite the fact that mothers are considered to be the best at raising their children — and despite the fact that we live in an era of “intensive mothering,” in which mothers are expected to devote all of their time, energy, and attention to their children, to the exclusion of all else — mothers in America do not receive an abundance of systemic support.

Even before they give birth, American women are faced with the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, an issue that is only compounded for young women who have been forced to become mothers before they’re ready, whether because of poor sexuality education, lack of access to birth control, and/or the criminalization of abortion.

Pregnant mothers of color and queer mothers are often not trusted by their doctors, and the distrust goes both ways, thanks to a history of medical experimentation on enslaved women (depicted in books like Killing the Black Body and Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid).

Later, after a successful birth, mothers often cannot afford to stay home with their children. They don’t always have access to paid parental leave, nor are they able to find affordable childcare. Their employers, meanwhile, often don’t offer flexible or remote work. This places mothers in the impossible position of either giving up their careers entirely or abandoning their children to childcare workers they can barely afford. Either way, they’re judged for it, considered either negligent or lazy, a level of judgment fathers don’t also receive.

Meanwhile, those who are able to afford daycare, housekeepers, nannies, and even mental health support are treated with judgment and scorn by those who think they should be able to do it all.

And the working woman who appears to be doing it all? She’s likely being paid less than her male counterparts, partially as a result of the “motherhood penalty,” a financial penalty dealt out by those who assume that mothers will inevitably choose their child over their career. And if that woman doesn’t have children? No matter. It’s assumed she will. Eventually.

For this reason, according to the National Women’s Law Center, for every dollar white fathers made in 2018, Asian American and Pacific Islander moms made 89 cents, white moms made 69 cents, Black moms made 50 cents, Indigenous moms made 47 cents, and Latina moms made 45 cents.

God Forbid We Talk About It

In the face of all of this, mothers are still not allowed to voice their anger, their frustration, their despair over the hardship of mothering.

In an episode of Latino USA called “Getting Real About Pregnancy,” podcast producer Jeanne Montalvo speaks of how negative emotions around motherhood are considered taboo. She speaks of the patriarchal structure of the Latin culture, in particular, described in Be Latina magazine as, “a system that reveres us as mothers but does not always respect us as people.”

Because the identity of Latina women is so wrapped up in motherhood, they are not even able to be open about the grief they experience when they miscarriage. Such situations are only spoken of whisperingly as “la perdida,” which translates directly to, “the loss.”

This is the silence all mothers find themselves entrapped by, in this instance writ large.

And, in fact, this silence and the aforementioned lack of systemic support may be at the root of struggles with perinatal depression. It’s older but, in a literature review from 1983, researchers found that in those cultures that had rituals that provided support and care to new mothers, postpartum disorders including depression were virtually nonexistent.

Where does that leave the mothers among us?

In my case, it has me carving out time for myself and feeling guilty about it. It has me heading out for work trips, feeling a sense of relief at leaving my family behind while simultaneously missing my daughter fiercely. It has me locking myself in the bathroom, sneaking Hot Cocoa Kisses, sometimes crying in the shower.

It has me clenching my fists because it’s taken me four days to write this damn blog post thanks to the fact that my daughter is remote learning and I am the one expected to simultaneously work and manage her education.

And I am one of the privileged ones. Me with my work-at-home, flexible, freelance job. Me with the support of my extended family. Me with all of the resources that I have.

Which is why I needed Nightbitch so badly. If only to see my shadow self written out loud. And why I empathized so much with the protagonist in Gayle Forman’s Leave Me, a mother who legit abandoned her family because she felt underappreciated and overwhelmed. And why I appreciated the ambivalence exhibited by Meaghan O’Connell in And Now We Have Everything and by Rebecca Walker in Baby Love. And why I cried quietly in sympathy over Teresa Wong’s Dear Scarlet.

Motherhood: There’s no winning.

But the least we can do (seriously: the very least) is openly and honestly talk about it. And in breaking that silence around our systemic lack, perhaps we can finally move toward change.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.


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