Motherhood is Otherhood

20 Oct

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Mothers are, no more or less than anyone else, flawed human beings.  We move through life, sometimes at a clip, sometimes more mindfully and cautiously, and sometimes we slog through life junctures and phases.  And, not less but probably more than many, we are positioned to make decisions that affect other people, often profoundly, even though we rarely have all the information we need before we make those decisions, since so much of it unfolds slowly through time, becoming most readily available only in retrospect.

I am reminded of a theme that comes up again and again in my writing, that is, how we are never only parenting in any given moment but simultaneously are working with and through a host of other identities and relationships.  Trying to rework some old problem, rewrite some moment in our ‘personal’ history, revise some perception born out of youthful naiveté, reconnect to some faded or stolen memory.  Each maternal act is always also about something else.  Whether we’re wanting to recreate some moment from our own experience (my own parent did X and that worked for me so I want to model that good deed for my kids) or revise it for a more beneficial spin (my own parent did X and that didn’t work for me so I want to model something else for my kids), we’re still moving among multiple identities in any given mothering moment.   It’s very difficult to pinpoint precisely what drove a particular choice; clarity about our motivations tends to only emerge after the fact, and only sometimes at that.

When I did or didn’t engage my kids in various activities, when I responded to school work or grades, when I gave advice about girl/boyfriends, when I got invested in what they ate or didn’t, when I reacted to the shape their room was in or what they were wearing—even though my pattern was to have little to say about these, when I felt competent as a mother or didn’t, when I gave general motherly advice, I was always also attending with all these responses to some other aspect of my identity and not just to my maternal connection with my kids.  What they wore sometimes tapped into my class issues; girlfriend and boyfriend stuff tapped into my own youthful memories of being loved or taken advantage of; what they ate or didn’t commented on my adequacy as a “from scratch” cook like my mother and whether I was good at anything besides work; flowing conversation at the dinner table (a rarity at our house) meant I’d fixed the problem from my childhood of rendering children invisible, and stilted conversation felt like I was back at the white dining table on 34th Terrace, being invisible and having fixed nothing. My children’s various insecurities indicated that I had been unsuccessful in saving them from what plagued me as a kid and brought me back to 3rd grade, 6th grade, 9th grade and whether or not I was smart enough, attractive enough (yes, in 3rd grade), bold enough.  Discussions about purchases were and still are always interwoven with how much money we didn’t have in my family growing up and how much I didn’t have as a college student and my decision to buy or not buy something was always tied up with all this at some level.  Spending more time on something with or for my children meant spending less time on something with or for my partner.  Leaving work to go to a school or sports event challenged my identity as an employee, or proved that I wasn’t wholly defined by work.

There have been innumerable times when I made maternal decisions that ended up being little connected to the kids because they were interconnected with these other things (and for that matter teaching decisions that weren’t about the students, partner decisions that weren’t about the partnership, nutritional decisions that weren’t about nutrition, daughter decisions that weren’t about me and mom).  And I think this is just the way of human relationships.  But it does make for choices that often enough don’t prove optimal for the people involved, this fact only becoming clear years later when the information we could have used back then begins to reveal itself.


Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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11 responses to “Motherhood is Otherhood

  1. Susan Tietjen Davison

    October 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Absolutely true…Thanks for pointing this out… I always know deep down when I am making a decision for or about my children based on who I am or want to be and am putting that first and not what may truly be best for them…I try not to do that often but with some decisions that definitely sneeks out. Good to read this to remind me not to do so ( based on the multitude of negative baggage that I carry ). Hope all is well with you. XOXO Susan

    • Dr. Mama

      October 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks Susan, so much, for reading and posting! I don’t really think that any mothering moment can be just about the child, that any moment can just about the one thing. I think it’s good and wise and appropriate, plenty of times, to do what is best for you and to put that first. I do think we ought try to keep the “negative baggage” at bay as best we can. Still, these parts of our history shape who we are and can’t be excised for the convenience of the children. So we’ll just have to go on being human I guess…

  2. K.A. Dorgan

    October 20, 2011 at 11:03 am

    5AM this morning–I was reflecting on this exact topic, and wondering why I have to constantly relearned that my child’s decisions/behaviors are not always about me. It was nice to see you explore that on the same day I was–once again–struggling with the Me/Him separation and interconnection.

    • Dr. Mama

      October 20, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      Well I’d make a joke, K.A., about thinking on this at 5 am rather than sleeping, but I was writing the post at that time so…you must have been sending vibes my way in those early morning hours!

  3. r4dic4lf3mm3

    October 20, 2011 at 11:46 am

    “We are never only parenting in any given moment but simultaneously are working with and through a host of other identities and relationships. Trying to rework some old problem, rewrite some moment in our ‘personal’ history, revise some perception born out of youthful naiveté, reconnect to some faded or stolen memory. Each maternal act is always also about something else.”- I really love this quote. It made me examine how and why I parent my daughters the way that I do. The way that I mother my daughters is directly related to the type of relationship that I wish that I had with my mother growing up. My mother is a cold and closed off type of person. She is also a career woman who has always immersed herself in her work. I was always proud of mom and respected her for the work that she did, even though it meant that I was alone a lot. So in mothering my own daughters I strive to be warm and to have meaningful conversations with my daughters about their lives. This is tough for me though because I don’t have a model for that. I don’t know how to talk to my kids. I just try to open up dialogs with them about what is going on in their lives and try to be open and honest with them about what is going on in my own life. I remember as a teenager wishing that I felt comfortable asking my mom to take me to the doctor to get on birth control. I was never able to have that conversation with mom though because we had never even talked about sex. I feel uncomfortable to talking to my daughters about sex too, but force myself to do it anyway because I think it is important that they be able to talk to me and ask me questions. I have also decided to have my 14 year old put on the pill pretty soon because I don’t want her to struggle with how to ask me and what to say when she does become sexually active. I hope I’m making the right decision with that.

    • Dr. Mama

      October 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks, radical femme, for (so faithfully!) reading and posting. I do think it takes more than sheer willpower to do something different with our kids when we’ve got no model or memory to fall back on. We have to be inventors, I think, creating new models everyday (which our children will have to create counters to in their own adult life :/

  4. Monica

    October 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    I read your article from the child’s perspective. On the one hand, it’s refreshing and reassuring to understand, rationally, all these aspects of parenthood. But, on the other, how do we cope emotionally with the parenting flaws of the “multi-identity” adults that are our parents? Pondering on that…

    • Dr. Mama

      October 20, 2011 at 5:46 pm

      I think it’s difficult. I struggle with it with my own mother, even though I “know better.” I think that we probably have to believe, as small children, that our parents are invincible, monolithic, knowable, and singularly directed toward caring for us. Else how would we not slip into total despair at the enormity of the task of guiding our own selves through this life? But that of course was a delusion. Necessary perhaps, through childhood, but a delusion. It’s likely that we acknowledge the multiple selves and identities of every other person in our lives, in which case we’d need to extend that acknowledgment to our parents. Or maybe we are all egocentric at core and presume that everyone close to us is singularly focused on us, in which case we probably spend a good deal of time disappointed, confused, and feeling unlovede. I think that what we needed to cling to as children in order to not feel swallowed whole by the world belongs to youth, that maturation and adult development position us to confront the humanity of our parents, and that that to continue on the path of growth and development we ought reconfigure our thinking to grant them the humanity that is rightfully theirs.

      • Monica

        October 21, 2011 at 2:02 am

        Very helpful words, and as I am reading I realize that I need to be a mother myself before I can really understand the simultaneous parenting and other identities.

  5. Dr. Mama

    October 22, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Well, maybe. But I’d wager that you could get some understanding just by thinking about your own self and how you are multiple people/identities at any given time, and how most of your life choices are grounded in the overlaps of these identities.

    • Monica

      October 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      Thank you for the food for thought! I will think about that.


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