The sacrifice of selfhood

Time after time, I see a harried-looking mother of a young child enter the cafe with a stroller.

She’s in incredibly casual clothes, and her hair is pulled back simply. She buys food and gets a drink, quickly arranges food (breaks up the scone) before the kid, and stuffs a few crumbs into her mouth. Then, as the child attacks the food, she sits down and stares blankly into the distance for a minute. The child remains interested in her food for only so long, before the mother has to return to duty and make bright and interesting conversation, and keep most of the scone from being ground into the carpet.

Before motherhood, I’d never realized how poignant those moments were. The moments of potential rest that occasionally punctuate a go-go-go struggle to meet a young child’s needs, while your own needs pile up, layer upon layer, underneath his need for food, drink, play, talk, different food, sleep, and so on.

And you try to snatch at those moments. -Maybe a drive in the car while the kid HAS to sit by herself in the carseat, that’s when you can actually just be, just breathe, without needing to rush to grab the kid before he reaches the china, or the corner of the table, and so on. Or you volunteer to go grocery shopping so you can put the kid in the cart and walk as an individual for a little while. Or you go for a walk, so the kid can be strapped into the stroller. Or you reach thirstily for the playpen as long as you can, or the baby DVD. And then the experts snarl at you in judgment and tell you how bad you are for not “engaging” with your child (what mother would take a shower/meal) while s/he is in his/her stroller, or watching a 20-minute cartoon, or happily playing in an exersaucer.

So whose breathers are you going to arrange today? Are you going to be able to go grab a coffee, just so you can sit in an environment which is different from the kitchen? Or are you going to think, in the evening, the child needs to go out and play, and you’d better be ready?

Somehow mothers’ empathy for their children exceeds everyone else’s. They “know” when s/he is cold, hungry, thirsty, bored. They need desperately to bring comfort, blankets, teddy bears, food, milk, to him/her, and they are engaged in an endless quest to do so. They don’t wait for the child to wail for help: they watch/listen constantly. It’s exhausting, but they have to do it. Their antennae wilt from being constantly in reception mode.

I’ve heard men tell men knowingly that this is about “women’s instincts.” Maybe there are some women who “need” to do it nonstop to feel wanted. But I know more women who don’t “need” it for a sense of selfhood: they do it because they’re IT. But they’d better do a good job of it because this creature needs them.

I’ve no idea how single mothers do it: fathers are not mothers, to be sure, but what would you do if you had to be on watch constantly, endlessly changing diapers, endlessly playing with the little creature for whom you are the universe? Mothers who have helpful sisters, mothers, in-laws, friends nearby – rejoice, for yours is the kingdom of relative peace.

2 thoughts on “The sacrifice of selfhood”

  1. You are so absolutely right in this post 🙂 Thank God that stage doesn’t last too long. A few years can, of course, seem like a lifetime of diapers and constant attention, being always on duty. But soon, too soon, the children start school and then college, and then one longs for the days of little feet and happy laughter, when you, the mother, were the center of a little world. Fathers feel it too. Ah life 🙂

    Ya Haqq!

  2. instinct shminstinct. if daddy had no choice but to do everything from day one he’d grow some antennae pretty quick.
    i’m just waiting for the time when he stops putting not-food things in his mouth so i can stop making those desperate dashes to fish it out – i mea, prise it out from between sharp teeth – before he swallows it. and anyway, i’m the one who’s going to deal with him pooping whatever it is out… at least then i can just sit and watch him play in the playground, instead of following him steps behind and looking like an overprotective smotherer…

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