The bathrobe was light gray, two sizes too big for me, and fluffy—the fluffiest the internet had to offer. On the day it was delivered, the plastic package was almost completely circular as it enveloped the supple contents; that’s how voluminous the robe was. Grabbing a pair of scissors, I snuck into the bathroom and eagerly sliced into the parcel. When I pulled out the garment and put it on over my clothing, all puffed up in Sherpa-lined faux shearling and twirling like a perimenopausal princess before the ball, I was transformed. Catching my reflection in the mirror, I faced a woman who was ready to test her hypothesis, and after all the months spent worrying, I couldn’t help but smile.
It all started when my babies moved from toddlerhood to boyhood, and I noticed my husband seemed to be getting all the snuggles. Why, after all the duty and loyalty and my children’s needs endlessly considered, after all that I had given of my own being, was I suddenly being passed over? As I grappled with this question, Harlow’s classic psychological research studies testing the importance of maternal attachment suddenly came to mind. His signature study, undertaken in the 1950s, sought to determine whether infant rhesus monkeys preferred bare “mother” effigies composed of wire and wood, or soft, cushiony “mothers,” essentially the same figure but wrapped in cozy terry cloth. Harlow found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the tiny monkey babies invariably gravitated towards the fabric-covered mother instead of the wire mother even when the latter could provide nourishment via an attached bottle of milk. I realized, as I reflected on my relationship with my children, that the lesson I had subconsciously internalized as a young adult in college, long before I ever considered undertaking the experiment of motherhood myself, was this: You can’t be that wire mother and succeed at mothering.
That message is partly why I still find myself so self-conscious about my own small and bony figure, even in midlife. Over my 41 years I’ve absorbed enough of the contradictory messaging about women and their bodies to feel like I’m simultaneously winning and losing at the societal game of trying to fit the mold of an “ideal” woman and mother. Perhaps because they are exactly the opposite of me, in my mind, nurturing, mother-y women have wide, curved hips and rounded bellies, substantial breasts hanging below loving, smiling moon faces. In contrast, I have always had pointy elbows and knees, shoulders with sharp edges, and ribs that stick out dramatically. My hands and feet are always cold, the tip of my nose too. I do not look particularly cuddly, nor has it ever been my inclination to be very physical.
Once I had children of my own—grown inside, and pushed out of, my body—I acclimated to the intimacy of constantly having someone in my personal space. As they grew, however, I quickly found my little boys’ hugs overpowering, their gentle embraces shifting into a frenzy of animalistic tussling that overwhelmed me with gripping and grasping and pulling. In the early days of motherhood this meant I often felt like my body was a sacrificial offering, my offsprings’ desire for me insatiable, and my essence made endlessly available to meet their every need, regardless of how reasonable or legitimate. I was a vessel being emptied again and again and again.
Which is why, beyond the physical likeness, I have often felt emotionally like that wire mother too. The soft, cloth-covered mother conjures a woman who has no other wish than to care for her children, to provide a welcoming lap for them to curl up in. But that is not what I have ever been like. In fact, once I became a mother, I found what I actually desired was more quiet moments alone. Time to read. To think. To be left to create my own inner and outer worlds through artistic immersion. But that has not felt like something I should want—and certainly not something I should be able to ask for and receive. A mother displaying such self-interest seems quintessentially cold and wiry.
Over those first few years of my children’s lives I slowly came to realize, quite painfully actually, that I was not the kind of mother society seems to revere, nor was I the mother my younger self had once imagined before reality set in: I was an exhausted working parent with diminishing opportunities for a personal life. There was a constant tug between what I wanted for myself and what I wanted for my boys. A perpetual, irreconcilable, tension between the yearning to be free and the desire to be forever encapsulated in the crystallizing amber of my children’s youth. As a result, when I finally had the solitude I was craving, I tried to enjoy it but couldn’t help feeling rejected and lonely. I was concerned—do they see me as a wire mother?
With the arrival of the bathrobe I had what I needed to try to answer that question. And, just as Harlow discovered, simply wrapping myself in a capacious layer of fleece did in fact bring my children back to me in all the best possible ways. My seven-year-old wanted me to tuck him in at night, holding on to my arm tightly, refusing to let go. In the morning, as I blow-dried my hair, my preschooler bounded toward me to bury his face into my fuzzy hip, his arms circling around my legs. And on Saturday mornings, nestled on the couch reading books together, their bodies would cocoon next to mine, all of us tucked in together under the sumptuous fabric.
As I basked in these little moments, it dawned on me that the versions of motherhood I’d been presented with as an adolescent had been extremes in opposition with each other—all parts I couldn’t wait to experience, and parts that just simply could not end soon enough. I was reminded that so much of the time with my children is actually spent in a sweet in-between space composed of awe and wonder and even a tiny bit of magic. After decades of absorbing all the conflicting notions of what it is to be a “good” mother, the robe brought with it some perspective, serving a dual function of extended invitation and protective force field. Suddenly, I could see these small humans as an extension of me, separate and individual, yet uncannily the expression of a preordained genetic blueprint that is nothing short of miraculous.
Over the past year the robe has become a kind of talisman. It is a physical reminder that takes me out of my head and into the present moment, invoking the qualities of the kind of mother I personally most wish to be: open-armed and warm; patient and loving and generous. Shifting my mindset to more deliberately make space for my children, I have found that I now actually have more space for my personal pursuits and that nurturing myself naturally extends to them eventually. It seems I inadvertently catalyzed some form of positive feedback loop with my experiment.
So, I continue to wear this robe every day, not just because my boys love it, but because I absolutely do too. After all, perhaps it is the bare wire mother who most needs the care and comfort offered by a soft terry cloth exterior.