Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Brief History of Motherhood

It used to be that people had kids because they couldn’t not have them, and then they were just there, like your hog or cow or field of corn.  Slightly more intelligent, slightly more useful, slightly more cherished.  You fed them whatever you had, I’m guessing some pork or beef or corn, and put some home-spun organic clothes on them, because there were no Targets, gave them a bed of some kind and then went back to churning your butter.  Which was a lot of work, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I want to churn butter.  And the kids crawled around and pooped in the corner every now and then, but your floor was dirt, so what did you care.  And occasionally a kid contracted a diphtheria or got trampled by a horse, and it was super sad but you had twenty more, so you got over it.  If they didn’t die young, you turned them out into the barn or field or chained them to a butter churn.  That was the way it was, and if anyone had anything to say about it, like, “I don’t wanna churn butter!!! I want a popsicle!!!” then you just beat them with the butter churn, and that pretty much solved that problem.

Parenting was not something that was given a lot of thought, certainly not something “experts” wrote books about and read books about while anxiously biting their nails and worrying it was too late for Johnny, he was already destined for a lifetime of wearing baseball caps backwards while gaming in the basement and watching internet porn and it is all your fault because you only breastfed him for 2 years and his baby food contained a preservative that Jenny McCarthy has since made illegal.  No, those parents had enough on their plates just putting food on their plates, and actually, they may not have even had plates, or else they had to make their plates themselves, which was hardly worth the effort when you can just eat off the pooped-on floor.  Life was pretty brutal in general, and children probably figured out early on that they had better shut up and help themselves or they weren’t going to live to acquire their own butter churn.

Now we buy butter in a store, or if we are a midwestern grandmother with a cholesterol problem or Fabio, we buy I Can’t Believe It’s not Butter.   But in a store. With all the extra time we save, we do crafts with our children and teach them to compose symphonies and shuttle them to their Chinese/ballet/Chinese-ballet classes and generally make a huge deal over them.  They come to the very logical conclusion at an early age that they are, in fact, Beyonce, or some other like celebrity, and can say things like, “Get my damn milk already” without endangering their lives.  And parenting is now officially a THING, an occupation all to its own, at which you can either succeed or fail.  You can even get fired, in the form of CPS showing up at your house, although that is a level of failure that I suppose doesn’t exist in the work world, unless you are a CEO or a President of the United States, in which case you may still keep your job.

Now, there was a golden decade or so after labor saving devices, store-bought butter, and disposable diapers somewhat relieved women’s past burdens in the home but before they discovered that television and tobacco kills and your children have to ride in car seats and wear sunscreen at all times and need constant attention and nurturing and crafting or they will hate you.  That period was called the 60s, maybe into the 70s, and I know from watching a lot of movies that mothers sat around smoking cigarettes, drinking boxed wine, playing bridge, and getting their hair “set.”  True, they did still have to cook and clean, or at least cook, until shag carpeting went out of style, and everyone realized things were disgusting down in there.  But then the microwave was invented.  One of my earliest memories was our family buying our first one circa 1978, after which my mother converted every recipe she had to a microwave version (which probably used up all the time the microwave saved, not to mention making the chicken really rubbery) and allowed her to do… I have no idea.  Because whatever she was doing, she wasn’t doing it anywhere near me.  I was either watching The Brady Bunch, roller skating in the basement or picking my nose and wiping the boogers on the wall behind my bed (was THAT ever a horrifying moving day).

But then lots of women got all educated and started entering the work force in large numbers and people in general got more educated and children became fewer and more precious and people started studying children and coming up with theories of parenting the basic thrust of which were that YOU SUCK, and a bunch of other stuff happened, too, like car seats being invented, including dire warnings that if you don’t break a couple fingers tightening the straps to maximum capacity, your child will die a painful death next time you have a fender bender.  And then women started feeling guilty about working, and a lot of them started going back home, college and graduate degrees retained, to raise their kids guilt-free (as if that is even humanly possible anymore) and to the best of their extensive abilities, and the ones that kept working started looking for more and more ways to assure their kids that they were extra-extra-special and Mommy loves you even though Mommy, gulp, likes her job somewhat but not too much and really I would stay home if we didn’t need to save up for your medical school.

And thus, motherhood—whether performed by over-qualified former career women who now directed their talents and ambitions toward their children, or angst-ridden current career women looking for ways to assure themselves, their kids, and society writ large that they were not horrible people—became a full-fledged profession, complete with its own journals, best practices, and review panels (i.e. other mothers, as well as your children’s future therapists).  

Here’s the thing, though:  While only certain women become accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, chefs, or whatever, most of women, statistically, will become mothers.  And while one’s choice of an occupation is usually correlated to one’s suitability, talent, and passion for that occupation, one’s choice to become a mother—and in some cases, there is no choice, there is more of a, What, it’s Tuesday?! This pill pack says it’s Saturday. I’m confused—is not.  We become mothers because we become obsessed with our partners and think our love is so great, it needs another body or two to inhabit.  We become mothers because we want to be genetically immortal.  Because we want someone to wipe our butts for us some day.  Because our marriage is too easy and perfect and we want to see if it can handle an existential threat to its life. Because we love Star Wars and want an excuse to play with our action figures again.  Because we are committed to the continuation of the human race, and we see a bunch of stupid people reproducing and become concerned.  Because it’s just what you DO, according to society.  Just because.

And some of us, maybe even most of us, become mothers because we are very well suited for it.  We have the skills and temperament not just for the relationship, but for the job.  We dreamed of nothing else as little girls, love the smell of babies, cry about children growing up, do not feel nauseous when we encounter a woman breastfeeding, like making cupcakes and other baked items, do not just wrap our Christmas presents in a perfunctory way but actually put curled ribbons and other crap on them, and can cook dinner while children incessantly whine and scream all around us.  We are maternal.

Then there are the rest of us.  The ones who as little girls could not understand why their friends were so eager to live a life of enslavement to mercurial masters, think toddlers aren’t so much cute as RIDICULOUS TERRORISTS, like eating cupcakes and other baked items made by other people, put Christmas presents maybe in a gift bag without tissue paper or just whip them out of the closet unwrapped on Christmas morning, and approach cooking dinner with unrestrained children in the vicinity as if we are climbing over a chain link fence with a pack of Rottweilers chewing our toes off.  If there were an interview process to become a mother, we wouldn’t even know how to lie.
“In a hypothetical scenario, if a child throws up on you while you are sitting on a sofa, what would you clean first, the child, yourself, or the furniture?”
“None of the above? I think I would just start crying and maybe run out of the house.”  
  “I’m sorry, the correct answer is ALL OF IT, simultaneously, but if one thing has to give, it would be yourself.  If necessary, you would wear those vomit clothes until the child’s high school graduation as long as he needed something and your house was a mess.”
“Oh. I guess I don’t get the job.”
“No, you’re getting the job. You’re just going to be really, really bad at it.  And you get some stretch marks, too.  Congrats!”

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