Mothers like to bond with one another through shared experiences. We tap into a universal umbilical cord that pulses with hugs, tears, wiped noses, and hopes. We swap birth stories, reveling in a shared language that is understood the world over. We lock eyes with a stranger — made suddenly a friend, an ally — over the heads of our over-stimulated toddlers in the cereal aisle. This capacity to instantly know and recognize another woman’s experience becomes part of our stories, our identities. We are mothers.
I meet women in my small northwestern Washington city, and often our conversations run like this:
“You have children?”
“Four! Wow. Where do they go to school?”
“Oh.” Pause. “They don’t live with you?” Our eyes meet. Fears creep like cockroaches over their faces as the women catapult themselves — just for a moment — into the sterile, joyless, heartless life they imagine I lead. “That must be hard.”
In an instant, the mother bonding ritual screeches to a halt. We can no longer chat comfortably about breastfeeding into toddlerhood, preschoolers who eat only white foods, or the unfortunate ubiquity of Hannah Montana. No. There is a cloud over our heads now. The cloud is dark and smells of uncertainty. These women see me as someone who has stepped out of the motherhood box, and not in a good way. I make them uncomfortable. Their bodies are suddenly tense, as if they want to go home and hug their kids to make sure they hadn’t vaporized into the ether in their short time apart.
I understand the discomfort. Reading Sophie’s Choice as a young mother, I held myself tense against the inevitability of what I sensed was coming. This was a woman without children, and yet… in her past there had been children. Something terrible had happened. Where were the children? I wept and kept turning pages.
“Your kids live with their father?” Some women want to understand more about me, to see the picture that disturbs them more clearly, the way we can’t help but look as we pass white-sheeted figures being loaded onto ambulances at the side of a slow-moving highway. “Do you… see them?”
Here is where I smile, though I can see the fears plainly. What these women are imagining about my life is a projection of what they might feel if, like Sophie, they are dragged kicking and screaming and made to make a choice that’s alien to their images of themselves as mothers. “Yes. Yes, I do. I see them as often as I can.”
The women visibly relax and then change the subject or move away to speak to someone else. I understand this. The lenses we wear are our own, and we cannot possibly see through someone else’s eyes. When these mothers look at me I imagine they’re feeling a slap in the face to the icon of motherhood.
While I was navigating (badly) the horrors of custody evaluations, psychologists, and lengthy hearings, my biggest fear was that I’d be separated from my children. Ironic? Maybe. I think, though, that those fears opened a door to the possibility of crafting a different life. Once I began imagining what it felt like to not be the one waking my children up in the morning and tucking them in at night, I could walk through my fear and feel its edges.
It’s funny, and I can say this now because I’m on the flip side most of the time, but my biggest fears in those days were about judgment. The worst courtroom moments were when untrue and unflattering things were said about me; I knew the words were untrue but I feared that people would believe them and think less of me as a mother. I knew myself to be a nurturing mother who put her children first, and I wanted people to see that in me because I so strongly identified with the motherhood image I was holding. Now, only a few years later, I’m in a situation that a lot of people find objectionable or at least uncomfortable. I’m okay with their discomfort. It doesn’t come from what people know about me but, rather, from the way they feel when they think the symbol of motherhood — so sacrosanct — has been threatened.
In the past two years I’ve explored what motherhood means. Giving birth? Check, though there are zillions of mothers who never gave birth. Biology isn’t motherhood. Uncheck. Tucking in at night and making lunches in the morning? Lots of mothers do that, and so do fathers. And nannies. And brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and, well, uncheck. Love, how about love? Love is good. Mothers love. Love isn’t confined to mothers, but that fierce protective mama-bear thing is associated with mothers. Check.
Tonight I stood up and spoke about my life for ten minutes to a group of women. It was an eclectic group, yet most were mothers and many were grandmothers, each woman sharing a chapter from their lives. Several talked about their families and how much they value family and the connections they feel. When I stood up I had no idea what I might say, but I found myself telling these women about how I went from attachment parent to a non-custodial mother. How I agonized about it for a year beforehand. How I struggled with the conflict of joint custody and the self-judgment of being away from my children. How I understand the fears people project upon me when they hear about my life. How I wondered who I was after selling all my things and driving away west, no longer attached to my children in the way I had been. Was I still a mother? After all, I don’t look like the mothers they know. Neither do Demeter and Gaia and Kwan Yin and Venus, all mothers. I may not be a goddess, but aren’t all mothers an aspect of the sacred?
In the end I stood there with twenty-five pairs of eyes looking at me, and twenty-five hearts listening, and said yes. Yes, I am a mother. I am.
Several women came up to speak to me afterward, hugging me, eyes glistening. Not one of them said, “It must be hard.”