There Are So Many Ways To Be Afraid Of Being A Mother

By July Westhale

‘Mother’ by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I am afraid I will pass down the ways I’ve been hurt and harmed in the world by parental figures.

M y partner is almost 10 years older than I am, and the conversation of having children has, unsurprisingly, arisen multiple times. I’m turning 29 in a few weeks, which is a year older than my mother was when she had me, and about 10 years older than the average age of women in my family when they have their first child.

And I am still terrified of having children.

While on a fellowship in Belgium (I’d been invited to stay a month to write a book about intimacy between women), I worked, among other things, on a collaborative project with one of my old grad school mentors, Martha Sparks. One of us would posit a question, long-form answer it ourselves, then send it to the other; our essays were largely based around the premise of generational/positional dialogue — basically it was a lot of wondering about the axiom of poetry, the capaciousness of community, lifestyles. It played out beautifully and complexly. We were two people of entirely different backgrounds, traversing different generations. Two poets having a long-distance conversation. Like letter-writing, but essay writing. A call and response. I’m not sure what to call it.

One of the most striking things about the project, for me, was getting to know Martha’s immense brain, as if being granted the key to Borges’ Library of Babel, and being deposited there. Or perhaps Borges’ minotaur labyrinth. She was, in her creation and contemplation, coming to such a different part of her poetry life, far from the fumblings and failing and foolishness of early poet life.

These essays were where we talked about the intricate ways in which poets become seasoned and more complicated with age — and there I was, here I am, failing and publicly fumbling. Struggling with my brain and all of its unanswerable questions. Walking around in a publicly private way, writing poems about the inner sanctum of grief.

The poems I write as a young poet are currently consumed with ideas of intersecting traumas (national/personal), and how they shape movements of art. I write about art’s hugeness and ineffability — its ability to hold politics and foster a discourse about injustice. But also — and this is a stereotype of young poets for a reason — I write from and about a place of chronic trauma, the root of which is developmental.

In using that lens of trauma, it’s easy to understand why having children would be something that would terrify me; there are so many ways to be afraid of being a mother. I am afraid I will pass down the ways I’ve been hurt and harmed in the world by parental figures, in the same ways that living through war takes four generations to work itself out of a family (and some families in some countries never, ever have that opportunity, so long is their inheritance).

I am afraid I will allow my child to see the darkness of adults before they are ready to; I’m afraid they will feel my darkness is their fault, or that they will feel responsible for fixing it.

The other present fear, which is no less complicated, is the idea that I will lose my life.

I’ve long associated love with a lack of autonomy. This comes from my long history of caretaking, but also my tendency, in my youth, to give up everything for someone/something else — off a cliff I dove, and with great fervor.

If I had a child, I fear I’d not get to write. I’d sacrifice the early morning edifices of the day (my best writing times), or the first gold of the evening (which Li-Young Lee calls Amen) in order to care for (yet) another human. It’s hard to not take that personally, to not see myself becoming resentful. And, complicatedly — in line with social pressures for those socialized as female, as well as the pressures on me as a chronic caretaker — it is one thing to intellectually understand that it is not selfish to love writing more than the idea of motherhood, but it is another to feel it, to know it. To not think it a grave disservice to the world.

Martha is a woman who never had children, who echoed my sentiments that motherhood would replace writing. In our talks about the writing life — from young to older — she told me how she used to think that in order to be a real writer, you had to give up everything. This included relationships, creature comforts, children.

Interestingly, a nomadic creature who’s done just that, Martha finds herself at the same place we all seem to find ourselves; this is to say, unsure of what being a real writer (insert other noun here) really means, and if sacrifice is a true component, or a self-enforced deprivation.

And Martha is a woman I look up to, so much. Who I think of as monastically living for her craft. Who understands solitude with breathless ease. I was consumed by her essays — they’re beautiful, but this is reductionist — and the way Martha sees the world. She’s an expert, I think, at weaving together the thought and life of people contemplating everything that is poetry — not just the word, but the act of it, the life of it.

So many things she says I find reflected in my own journey, Martha self-proclaimed failures/foolishness/mistakes are the very precipice I teeter on now. I can’t help it. Past-Martha can’t help it. It’s the plague of un-knowing.

I wrote in an email to her, from Belgium, from my little attic-type room on the farm in Olsene: this is maybe off the record.

I finally slept through the night, waking to run along the cow-path (the nearest neighbor is a pig and cow farmer), having a breakfast of yogurt and bananas (but isn’t the yogurt good here, my god), having a cup of coffee, then crawling back into bed with a hot water bottle and Nick Flynn’s disjointed memoir, Ticking is the Bomb. He’s just reached the point where he talks about his mother’s suicide, and I felt the inside of myself freeze up, and then I felt myself being curled around, as if there were something both jarringly horrifying in his words and also womb-like and comfortable. It is not the story of my own mother’s death, but the death of a mother is something I can put on like a well-worn sweater. Samsara. The familiar in-between.
Flynn says this: “If I was lonely, which I was, every night, I could knock on a friend’s door, I could just show up, and she, whoever she was, would take me in. Of course, there was a like I couldn’t do. Like fall asleep. Like wake up. Like feel anything. Like stop feeling everything. So every night I slept with someone, someone else, another friend. It was easy, putting my body into another’s body — We seem good at it, I’d think, hovering a few feet above the bed. After my mother died, I still had a body, but it was not one I could enter, not one I could use. I was here, standing before you, only it was temporary — think of a snake, how it leaves its skin behind, and this skin looks like a snake at first, until you step on it and it powders. Then, after many disembodied years, a woman gave my body back to me. Slow, Inez said, go slow. Don’t come yet, she said, stay here with me.”

After reading this, I felt the chill in the room deepen. “Who’s there?” I said, immediately feeling like a child playing a game. The eaves of my room in Belgium were eave-d, and full of light, as if someone cut the head off of an attic. In that same fashion, it seems likely a place as any to have a secret passage, or to host ghosts.

I had the immediate urge to get up and write to Martha to ask her a very pedantic-seeming question:

What is it like to have a mother?

Love has not saved me like it did with Flynn — I never expected it to. I have been suspicious of that notion — this is because maybe I lost my mother very young, and have spent my life taking care of adult people. But I often feel as though it is obvious I am walking around like a big, open wound. Is it obvious? And when I ask this question about having a mother, I don’t ask to be sentimental or to bridge the wiles of intimacy, but because I genuinely want to know, to insert myself into a consciousness that isn’t my own.

I often feel as though it is obvious I am walking around like a big, open wound.

I’ve been thinking about having lunch with my best friend Francesca (see essay on queer girl friendships) one day. I was listening to her complain about her own, beautiful, severe, complicated mother — how my dear friend stopped mid-sentence and looked at me, light leaving her face. We’d known each other five years at this point. “It just occurred to me that you don’t understand what I’m talking about,” she said kindly. “You couldn’t possibly.”

How at the recent wedding of a childhood best friend (let’s call her Kay), the bride had been intolerably rude to her mother. She’d been nasty when her mother told her how beautiful she’d looked.

“I’m just really stressed out right now,” Kay had said, her face turned upwards to keep her tears from making lines in her makeup. “And I can’t deal with her emotions.”

How I felt as if I’d been slapped, banished, asked to leave. How I exiled myself the rest of the wedding — a feat difficult for the Maid of Honor to achieve clandestinely. How the first dance was a song played at my mother’s funeral, and how I stole a cigarette from Kay’s purse, 10 years after I’d quit, and smoked against the cotton fields, half hoping they’d catch fire.

I’ve said this before — and I’m sussing this out now — I have a feeling that everything I do in this world is somehow a way of trying to understand what it’s like to have a mother. Literature, says Jeanette Winterson, is not a hiding place, it’s a finding place. All I’ve wanted, says Allen Ginsberg, is to return to the body from which I was born. Are you my mother? asks Dr. Seuss, asks Alison Bechdel.

I have a feeling that everything I do in this world is somehow a way of trying to understand what it’s like to have a mother.

What I’m trying to say, what I feel like I’m always trying to say, is that I cannot talk about writing without talking about my mother. In the poetry manuscript I just finished, I have many, many poems about mothers/mothering. I have four poems called “Dead Mom,” and they are all different. Maybe they are about different mothers. Maybe they aren’t about mothers. Maybe writing and poetry are like Jungian dreams; I am everyone I write about. I am the mothers, the lovers, the terrible crop dusters, the tinderbox of California; I am Francesca. Maybe I am Kay, carelessly cutting the Achilles heels of her friends. Maybe I am both the cotton field intact, and the cotton field aftermath, when the dawn shows a graveyard of stalks and one slightly melted beige wedding sandal.

Perhaps this, too — my life and obsession with The Mother — will fade from context, just as Virginia Woolf’s own mother faded from context after her death. Martha wrote in our essays that this is the moment that present-poet context begins to fade — the moment they die. And how strange it is that we don’t have conversations about the deaths of poets or their present-selves at Time of Death, but their work as it is, contextually, posthumously.

Virginia Woolf spent her whole life, Margot Livesey said once in a craft lecture I’d attended, trying to deal with and write through her mother’s death, and was only able to when she wrote Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse.

Perhaps this, too — my life and obsession with The Mother — will fade from context.

But what does that mean, then? That literature is created in seeking a void? That we’re writing to reenter another womb? That I am a ghost, haunting the halls of libraries, inserting myself into the bodies of books until I can insert myself into my own? Does this mean I have to get married? A good friend and fellow adoptee once said that the only way she filled her void was by having a baby. I don’t want that. Or I mean I don’t want that now — I understand the ebb and flow of desire. I also think that a baby can’t possibly be the only answer, nor do I think my question has an answer, per se.

Love, then? To love another person is to see the face of God/mother? Does Victor Hugo have the answer? You just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves — is Mary Oliver who we turn to for this?

What if love is subversive? I grew up religious; I grew up adopted. When I came out as gay, there was the conversation — legitimately! — that I was gay because my mother had died. That my love for women, or people socialized as women, was a result of some kind of void.

A lack? A void? An open wound? That can’t possibly be the axiom of poetry.

Here’s where intimacy sits, for me. Here’s where the crux of my work in a global, philosophical sense, sits. Here’s what I’m trying to figure out, in my fumbling, failing youth. In the meantime, I try everything on as a mother, every person, landscape, painting, book.

What is it like to have a mother? What is it like to be a mother?

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