Her Bad Mother

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Our Motherhood, Our Selves

When I wrote that MILF post the other day, I was sort of expecting that there might be one or two people, at least, that might say that they embraced the term MILF. To which I was fully prepared (and even set up the groundwork in the post) to say, hey, fine, whatever floats your empowerment boat. I have no interest in telling people what they should or should not find empowering; I just have some clear opinions about what seems to me to be unempowering. But although some people said that the term didn't bother them (which, again, fine; I'm not looking to ban the term), no one said that they embraced it or took it seriously.

That, however, wasn't the thing that most surprised me in the comments. What surprised me most was that someone turned up and read the whole discussion as an affirmation of the general tendency of mothers to view themselves as superior to other women and to other human beings in general:

Um. The statement that mothers are sexually more interesting is just as offensive as the suggestion that they're not... Mothers are women. Childless women are women. There's no "winner" but there seems to be this divisive battle going on, particularly in the blogging sphere. Problem is, I don't see any non-mothers claiming superiority in the way I see mothers doing so.

My response - admittedly knee-jerk - was to defend the intended literal meaning of what I'd actually said:

I said that *I* was sexually more interesting, as compared to my pre-maternal self. It was a personal reference, not a universal one (although I would argue that sexual self-awareness and maturity does make one more interesting as a sexual partner generally. This, however, does not apply exclusively to mothers...) The fact is - as one anonymous commenter above makes abundantly clear - that mothers, as a group, are often regarded as asexual or unsexual by the culture at large, and certainly by popular culture.

When I gave it another moment's thought, however, I realized that my irritation at the comment wasn't that I'd been misunderstood, or that the commenter had missed my point about the whole MILF thing being demeaning to women generally, but rather that someone was bringing up this old saw about mothers having a superiority complex, and that I was going to have address it lest my head explode.

There are a lot of things that I could say about this whole 'mothers think they're special'/'parents think that the whole world should revolve around them' nonsense, not least among which would be that until you've had a child, you can't possible realize how many facking obstacles the world throws at human beings who pack children around with them. But my primary argument would be this: yes, actually, mothers (and to some extent, parents generally) do think that they are special. Not as a matter of superiority, but as a matter of difference. We have a differiority complex. We view ourselves as fundamentally different in many respects from people who do not have children. (Note this important point: NOT BETTER THAN. DIFFERENT THAN.)

Once you have given birth to or adopted a child, your entire world changes. Your entire world, and THE entire world, changes. You come to understand love in an entirely different way than you could ever have possibly understood it in the absence of the human being that is entirely dependent upon you. You come to understand your body, and bodies generally, in an entirely different way. You come to understand faith and morality and safety and security and learning and dependence and independence and fear - oh my god the fear - and passion and defensiveness in ways that you could not possibly understand if you did not have that child. This is, in my opinion, just fact. Children change you fundamentally and uniquely. Someone who has not had a child simply cannot understand the nature of this change firsthand.

This does not mean that people without children are less than, or inferior to, people with children. It just means that our life experiences are different. Parents - and especially mothers, I think - know things that non-parents cannot possibly know, because of those different experiences. If you do not have a child - by birth or adoption or whatever - or have not had a child (it does not matter for how long - five seconds or five years or five decades - or under what circumstances children might have been lost or given up, the experience of the having, however briefly, is what is fundamental) you cannot know how having a child changes you, how it changes your perspective, how it changes your relationship to yourself and the world. How it changes your heart. This is no different from saying that people who have faced death, or gone to university, or travelled the world have fundamentally different life experiences and different knowledge than those who have not experienced those things. It's just that mothers, and parents, are a larger group, and so their recognition of themselves as a group with certain fundamental likenesses is perhaps more obvious in the culture.

So, yes: mothers do identify as a group and do bond over the similarities in their experiences (not least among these: oh my god did you know that it would be like this?) and do sympathize with each other over certain common struggles that they - rightly or wrongly - perceive to be unique to their experience as mothers. Because they want to, and because they need to. It's a whole different world out here in Mommy Land, and for many of us it will take the whole rest of our lives to get used to it.

And if we sometimes (and I do hope that it is only sometimes, because we do spend time in other places) act or speak or write as if you need a special passport to get to this place and to really experience and understand it, it's not that we don't respect your travels and experiences - we do, because we've been on many of those same journeys ourselves. It's just, well, you do need a special passport to get here and understand it for yourself.

It's called a kid.


You all? Have made this such a TREMENDOUS discussion. I encourage anybody coming to this post for the first - or the eleventh - time to read the comments, and (of course) my contributions to the comments. Some of you have made me rethink some specific elements of my argument - ALL of you have me think, period - and I've explained that rethinking below, in the commentary. I heart you, Internets, I really do.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

love it love it love. I am so not the person I was before I had kids. I'm not better. I'm just different. We're all different. Those that AREN'T different? Those are the ones that end up in the news. In a bad way.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Don Mills Diva said...

I could not agree more. Before I had a child I was very senstive to people who suggested they knew things I didn't, etc, etc. but when you have a child, well, sorry but IT IS different. I wince when I hear people say their dog is their baby because well, it's NOT the same. Not better or worse but not the same. The sheer effort - physical, financial, emotional, intellectual - that you have to expend day after day after day, it's impossible to describe and it does change you, it does make you different from people who are childless, it just does.

12:16 PM  
Blogger 7aki Fadi said...

very well said.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Rachel (Crazy-Is) said...

Perfectly put. I have never thought of myself as better than anyone simply because I am a mother. But, as you said, no one can understand what being a mother is like, except another mother. I am proud to be a part of that "group".

12:27 PM  
Blogger Just Powers said...

Beautifully stated. As someone who has worked with the Deaf in the past, this makes me think of Deaf culture as well. They have experienced the world in a very different way than their hearing peers, and so of course pull together around that experience in a way that is sometimes hard for hearing people to understand. They don't think they are superior, they just know they have a view of the world that non-Deaf people don't have. Which is exactly how I feel as a mom.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Thank you - you said what I have trouble trying to explain to others. Being a mom is a life changing experience. Non-parents can roll their eyes, but until you become a parent, you can't fully understand the change.

For me, the change is that you are no longer an individual. Sure, married people are bound to each other through their vows, but it's different. From the moment you have a child to care for, your life is no longer entirely your own, you can no longer think about just yourself, and suddenly you find that the greater interests of the world - the environment, war, health care, etc - take on far more importance. Being a mom is an empowering and humbling experience all at the same time.

It's all a little hard to adjust to, too, and I think that's why so many moms seek each other out for this little "club" of ours. Before I had children, I asked others what it was like, and everyone told me that I couldn't understand it until I was a mom myself. And they're right.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I do not yet have children I am an avid mommy blogger reader, especially of blogs about mothers in Southern Ontario. What I find quite interesting and at times humourous about many mommy blogs (although not of my favourites) is the competition within the motherhood circle. I find not so much that mothers think they are better than nonmothers but often better than OTHER mothers. And I dare not bring up women who think or act as though they are the first to have ever had a child (ahem, Celine Dion types). It are those blogs who celebrate all mothers- all women- and those writers who are not afraid to expose their fears, challenges and dislikes which I find most interesting and celebratory of motherhood not as a label but as an integral part of one's soul.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Crunchy Domestic Goddess said...

amen. excellent post.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Amen. You explained it well. We ARE different because we're parents...similar to how people who have a terminal illness have different life experiences than I do. They have different priorities than I, most likely.

And people who say their pets are their kids? Definitely NOT the same, and they'd know that if they had a human child.

12:58 PM  
Blogger tracey.becker1@gmail.com said...

Oh! I love this post. LOVE it. Brilliantly thought out, hon.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hah! i once had a friend tell me that her watching my baby would be like me borrowing her car...cause you know, she was very attached to her new car...WTF?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Liv said...

right on. i have had a problem with MILF as a term because, to me, if you have mothered someone's child, that person should want to sleep with you-- acronym or no.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

Yep. I don't know what it's like to backpack through Europe or perform open heart surgery. You could explain it to me in vivid detail, perhaps even show me a step-by-step video, but I still wouldn't get it entirely.

That's just the way it is (with apologies to Phil Collins. And someone named 2PAC, apparently).

1:27 PM  
Blogger B said...


1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well said. it's simply a matter of perspective. (although I have been around women, both mothers and non-mothers, who have a huge superiority complex - it has nothing to do with whether you've been puked on by the one you're raising or not)

1:42 PM  
Blogger Skippin' Rope said...

Amazing post!

I had a similar issue with my sister [my sister!] about this. She was really upset that I wouldn't leave me 4 month old with my mom [I breastfeed] so that I could hang out with her. She just didn't understand my want and love to be with my child. She doesn't have kids and just doesn't have that experience that I do.

Also, I know you were trying to cover all the bases to not exclude anyone, but thanks for including birth moms. I was a birth mom before I was a mom and it changed my view on everything. Thanks for acknowledging it, you have no idea how much it means.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Miss Britt said...


I think this is similar to when someone who is older than you (women seem to do this the most) will say "oh, when you get to be my age, you'll understand."

And it's frustrating to hear because damn it! you can't help your age! And damn it! you still have valid thoughts and experiences!

But yes... it is DIFFERENT.

2:00 PM  
Blogger MamaMo said...

Well said. The underlying difficulty, I think, is that we all tend to "demonize" (too strong of a word, but couldn't think of a more appropriate one) difference, especially in areas of personal choice (political views, having kids, parenting styles, etc., lifestyle choices). When we truly appreciate the IMMENSE spectrum of diversity in the human family (6 billion of us, no two exactly alike), we are less likely to be challenged (and then defensive, argumentative, etc.) when someone makes a choice that differs from our choice. Their diversity ADDS to the richness of our experience, not challenges it. We can confidently make choices for ourselves, and yet encourage and appreciate others doing the same.

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i absolutely concur, and prior to embarking on this journey called motherhood, i never did understand what the fuss was all about. and now my best attempt at describing the contrast between life before child and life with child, based on my own experience, yields the following: days before child were like black & white (or sepia) photos -- very subtle and beautiful, like a lyrical song, a quiet and peaceful dream that lingers. days with child are in full-blown color, drama-galore, loud with screams, laughter, giggles, crazy vividness at warped speed. not necessarily better, but very different indeed. someone once said (and it resonates with me very much so) that parenthood makes you a better person, not necessarily a happier one.

as for the MILF discussion, i personally find the term no more offensive than the word "f*ck," when used in the proper context. looking at the term objectively, it merely translates into one's opinion as to the "hotness" of a particular mother. as in, "wow, there's a hot woman (who happens to be a mother) that i'd LIKE to bang." the term would be offensive only if used to infer that mothers, as a group, are sexually undesirable, which i don't believe is the intent. also, i've heard the term used by (more mature) men to refer to not just mothers with physically appealing attributes but also mothers who have utter control over their crazy busy lives -- families, careers, friends, finances, keeping up with current events, etc. -- aka superwomen whom they find hot. hence, depending on the context, the user, the connotation, the term isn't necessarily pejorative.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Zellmer said...

My best friend had 2 children before I had my first. I lived in NYC and she lived in CT. She almost never came to NY to visit me, and I used to give her shit for that. I could never understand why it was so hard for her to leave her kids for just one night. Her husband could watch them. Her mother-in-law was there to help out. Now that I have kids, I understand that it's not the physical detachment that was the issue. It was the emotional detachment that she couldn't live with. And the guilt of putting her own needs in front of theirs.
I have my own 2 children now.
But, I had to have my own children before I could finally understand why I was the one who always had to make the trip to CT to visit her.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen! Very well said, and I couldn't agree more.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In regards to Anonymous's comment on Hot Mothers, (which passed under my radar till now) why is it always women that bear the brunt of 'unsexy' in parenthood?

What about the dads who are neat and clean and cheerful, but maybe carrying an extra fifty pounds? Gone are the suits and ties and impromptu romantic little things, but they're never considered asexual beings. And if they 'aren't getting any' it's because the wife is an asexual mommy.
Why do they get a pass? Because men aren't as typically objectified. (Much to their sorrow, my husband informs me.)
Where are the FILF/DILF acronyms? The smarmy 'foxy fathers' or 'delicious daddies' in the media?

Fuck this. Sexy is an attitude, not a number on the scale, a level of trendiness, or a mode of apparel.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having often felt excluded from Mommyland myself, I do take issue with the idea that non-parents can't possibly understand what it's like to be a Person with a Child. Although, yes, it is impossible for me to feel those particular emotions and experience those particular situations, I do think it's possible for me to understand what it's like, and sometimes even imagine it to a certain degree of accuracy. (See Janet's earlier comment.)

Maybe this is just a problem of semantics, but maybe it's deeper than that. Maybe I'm heartsick after years and years of parents leaving me out of conversations because I "can't understand," parents condescending to me because I "can't understand," parents treating me like I'm deficient because I don't have the necessary understanding to discuss True Love or True Organization or True Body Issues or whatever.

Dear Moms and Dads: For those of us who wish to become parents, please don't exclude and dismiss us; we are trying to learn from you. And for those of us who don't wish to become parents; we are also trying to learn from you (or if not trying to learn, at least able to benefit from what you can teach us). The way I figure, it's easier for non-parents to be sympathetic to the crying baby on the airplane or the boisterous toddler in the restaurant if they can understand at least a little bit of what the parents--and the children--are going through. How else are nonparents to learn about parenthood unless someone lets us peek into that world?

The biggest obstacle to helping non-parents understand--and appreciate--the challenges and joys of parenthood is to treat us as if we CAN'T understand or appreciate it. I think that mindset does a disservice to everyone.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm on board with what you're saying, Catherine, but I disagree with your word choice. Maybe not "understand" but "feel" and "experience" and "know firsthand what it's like."

3:24 PM  
Blogger ChicMama! said...

Part of the reason I began reading, and then began writing writing blogs, was because I searched in blogger for something to reflect my feelings after having a baby and struggling with just how hard it was. And then I found your blog, and read words that articulated my feelings better than I could think, let alone write about them; I felt connected, and it felt a little less challenging, a little more possible to raise a baby.

Here again, you've articulated beautifully - this time on the challenge and the joy of being a parent. It's just so wonderful and it can just be so hard. Thanks for the post.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Jaelithe said...

It's amazing to me how many people without children seem to forget how all us parents started out as, well, people without children. We really DO know what it's like from both sides.

Leah, I have never deliberately tried to exclude any of my childless friends from my life as a mother. But many of them have deliberately excluded themselves. They don't understand why I can't have the same sort of social life that they do now (it took me my son's entire first YEAR just to convince the majority of my childless friends that it really wasn't a good idea to call me anymore after 10 p.m. because it would wake the baby, and I STILL have people inviting me to things at the last minute, and then getting miffed at me when I can't come because I can't find childcare on such short notice).

And when I do manage to meet with my childless friends, I have found that if I talk to them about the daily realities of my life as a WAHM, their eyes gloss over with boredom until someone changes the subject.

I think if it seems your friends with children avoid talking about their lives as parents when they are around you, it's likely that most of them are avoiding talking to you about parenthood because they assume you will be turned off or bored by that kind of conversation, and they don't want to face the sort of rejection from you that they've probably already faced from many other childless friends before.

So, if you really want to be "included" in the parenting club conversation, I'd recommend just listening attentively whenever your friends talk about their children, asking questions about their children, asking questions about your friends' lives as parents, and sounding genuinely interested when they respond.

And offers to babysit now and again wouldn't hurt, either.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Jaelithe said...

P.S. I should have said that MOST of my childless friends seem utterly bored by any conversation regarding my life as a parent. There are a couple of childless friends who really are interested and really do listen, and just that little bit of effort on their parts to learn about this aspect of my life makes me appreciate those friends SO MUCH.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's just the inherent exclusion that upsets people.

I'm not a Mom, I haven't had kids yet, and I know what I don't know- what it's like to have a kid. Yet, it still took me a full ten minutes to lose the urge to make a nasty comment. People hate to be left out. HATE.

Everything you said is true. Every bit of it. That doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

Also, I know that personally, I get really sensitive to it, because emotionally, I really, really want a baby. Financially, we're not ready. Frankly, I don't know if we ever will be. So, even though I'm a frequent reader, and I heart you, so much, I kind of hate you. You know?

I wanna passport!!!!

3:59 PM  
Blogger Jenifer said...

Amen. Again.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jaelithe--I totally get what you're saying. Yes, there are a lot of nonparents who absolutely don't want to hear about babies all the time, and who don't care about parenting issues in general. I try to distinguish myself from those people by always asking questions and listening and babysitting and making it very clear that I'm interested and appreciative in hearing about parenthood and peoples' children.

The problem is that about half of the time I find myself in that old familiar position: parents giving me all kinds of wonderful information but then ending every sentence with "but you can't possibly understand what I'm going through until you have your own." I want to say, "Um, you're actually helping me understand what you're going through right now! Can you please just do it without the condescension and dismissal?"

It seems that with every parent friend I just have to find a balance between (1) opening up the conversation in hopes of sharing information and (2) risking opening myself up to yet another "you're not in the club" snub. In many ways, it's not that different than negotiating the boundaries of any other friendship, but it does sting in a particularly harsh way considering that I would love more than anything to have a child of my own but have had some obstacles crop up. For that reason, I'm much less likely to open myself up to the parents who have been especially smug around nonparents; it's not that I don't respect them and what they're doing but that I have to protect myself from their lack of respect for my boundaries. It goes both ways.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, what verybadcat said. It hurts to be left out, but its hurts even more to be left out when you really really really really want--and are trying your hardest--to be included.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

Yes. Of course you're right C.

But what is uncomfortable for most people about this discussion, what makes your assertion seem like a claim for superiority rather than difference is that people who are parents have double knowledge: we were in Camp A (childless) before but are now in Camp B (parents) and are in the position of saying to the denizens of Camp A, "yes, I used to be you, and think like you, but now I'm different. I can't explain it and you'll never know until you become like me, too."

It's perfectly true. It's also perfectly infuriating to people in Camp A, who resent the implication that their experience is, well, partial. Because, in this context, it *is*.

What's even better is: we (that is, the denizens of Camp B, the parents) will employ precisely this strategy with our offspring in a soon-enough time when we try to help them avoid our mistakes: no you cannot ride your bike without a helmet / drink unsupervised and underaged / camp with your 'special friend' overnight / whatever. I'm an adult and I understand better than you! I used to be a teenager!

(I realize I seem to have relegated Camp A to the same status as children / teenagers, and I don't mean the slight. I mean that it's funny that Camp B is going to fight this particular battle over and over and over again over our dining room tables.)

To conclude: if you haven't been there, you actually really DON'T know what it's like. It's nothing against you, Camp A camper -- it's an experience thing.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Leah, verybadcat - I tried very hard (or thought I did) to not make it seem like mothers have their very own special planet that is utterly alien to anyone who is not a mother. As I said - different country. And one that I think - personally - everyone should want to go to. AND I think that anyone who really really does want to get here probably has a better understanding of it than many other people. So you're probably right, Leah, when you say that I should have stuck more to words like 'firsthand experience' rather than 'understand.' WANTING a child badly can, I think, bring someone pretty close - if not entirely - to understanding what's at stake.

I'm really very sorry if it seemed as though I was saying that non-parents *couldn't possibly* come anywhere to appreciating the experience of a parent. That's simply not true. I have some very wonderful non-parent friends - on-line and off - who really get how much I love my daughter, and, I think, really understand my frustrations and ambivalences v.v. motherhood, and I would hate for them to think that they're excluded from my world. They're not. But there are times and there are circumstances where I *do* think that it takes another mom or parent to really fully empathize. But, too, it also takes another PhD to fully empathize with my complaints about academia or another lover of Lost to get my fervent attachment to that show, etc, etc. (my husband, as it happens, falls into neither of these categories, and so JUST DOESN'T GET ME.) Doesn't mean that NO one else has anything valuable to contribute, nor that I can't love or appreciate those people in my life and want to share those interests with them anyway.

As I said - different country, NOT different planet. And one that is fully visitable, even if the full-on citizenship experience is a bit tougher to come by.

Sorry for any offense.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Mimi, you're right of course. Which what makes this topic a difficult one to unpack sensitively.

I guess that my feeling - and my basis for claiming that it's differiority rather than superiority (which, yes, hard to escape) - is that there are, in life, all sorts of Camp B's - not just parenthood. *Experience* creates Camp B's - and everyone eventually, I think, finds themselves in one sort of Camp B or another and excluded from others (I went to graduate school; my sister didn't; my sister has a terminally ill child; I don't; I speak some foreign languages; my husband doesn't; my husband can drive; I can't, etc, etc) Some of these are more or less minor; others are pretty significant and can change entire worldviews. ALL of them accord some specialized experience and knowledge to their members. And for the most part, members of Camp B's don't *actively* try to exclude non-members (at least, I'd like to think that they don't); it's just that membership in epistemic communities (if we can call them that) just necessarily involves some exclusion, as matter of definition.


All of this is to say - YES, it's hard to escape the implication of superiority when one breaks it down. But whatever sense or idea of superiority might be attached here isn't necessarily a universal one (that is: it's NOT that being a parent/mom makes one a better person overall; it's that being a parent/mom gives one a better understanding of parenthood/motherhood and, so, a specific firsthand share in a knowledge/experience that non-parents don't have.0

Make sense?

4:46 PM  
Blogger clueless but hopeful mama said...

I loved this post and am fascinated by the discussion here.

As much as I relate to this post, I find myself siding (I know, I know NO SIDES) with the non-moms who don't want to be left out (even though I'm a mom) because lately I've been getting grief from my friends with more than one kid about how I can't POSSIBLY understand what it's like blah blah blah. What I hate about that statement is it totally shuts me out. It ends the conversation.

Let's keep the conversation going.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nearly impossible for you to offend me, C, because where you're coming from is not a position of This Is How It Is but of This Is How I See It, and What Do You Guys Think? Wherever there is open dialogue and wiggle room for people to grow and change and reassess their points of view, I think there's room for greater understanding and a foundation for that sometimes-elusive middle ground.

It's true--exclusion is everwhere and it almost always sucks. Sometimes it just sucks more or particularly hard, right on the part that's already sore.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post, and completely reasonable and sensitive to nonparents (specifically, non-moms). I do try to be very sensitive to people who don't have children because what do I know...maybe they're trying desperately and are unable, have had and lost, etc. When I'm out with moms and non-moms alike, I tend to talk to the non-moms more because I know that the talk with the moms (of whom I'm one) will eventually get around to the kids, and since their kids are still little and mine are older, I'm bored with all of the stories. I guess I'm kind of like, "Yeah, you say that now but wait till your child is a moody 12 year old." I'd much rather talk to parents with children my age than those with babies. So in a way, I'm guilty of doing the same thing to new moms (i.e., mothers of youngish children) as some moms are seen as doing to non-moms. Make sense?

Also, no offense to moms of young children. Having been there and done that, I just have no desire to hear about others doing it, nor do I ever want to do it again. That's just me.

But, it doesn't mean I'm going to STOP reading your blog. Nope, never.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...


you are awesome and i heart you. i haven't said that nearly enough. teh endz.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand exactly what you are saying about how very much parenthood changes you--how it makes you different.

Before children, I thought I had my life and myself figured out. I was level headed and mature. I thought I understood so much.

Then I had kids and learned that I didn't know anything. Everything about me changed. And I'm not sure I will ever have it figured out again. I've learned a great deal about myself from the experience of becoming a parent. Alot of it I'm still trying to wrap my head around.

5:17 PM  
Blogger jenB said...

My asexual being (like a sponge) applauds you loudly for a kickass and SEXY post.


6:15 PM  
Blogger Heather B. said...

So Leah said the 'something' that I've been trying to think of for several hours. And she is far more eloquent and it has taken me HOURS to form simple words. But yeah, sometimes there's the snub. You KNOW how many friends of mine are parents and that even though I don't have kids, I at least have SOME understanding of how they feel about their children and their role as a parent. And if I don't get it, I try really hard to listen. At times though there are other parents around who can be dismissive. It's as if there is an assumption that because non-parents haven't been there yet then they have no sense of understanding and should stand in the corner and be quiet and talk about disposable income. I'm saying this from my point of view, but chances are, if I am in a room with parents, I am more than willing to talk about a clingy 19 month old or breastfeeding or whatever. And I do it so I can understand and am generally interested. I might be in the minority in this case just as there are very few moms who give the cold shoulder but there are always the few in each group that make it a little difficult for the other side.

What I'm trying - so terribly - to say is that no I'm not there yet. And HELL NO I have no intentions of being there for another decade but that doesn't mean I need to be talked down to nor does it mean that I don't care or have absolutely no sense of understanding. I am a woman who wants kids (in 10 years) and has done everything in her power to support and be understanding towards friends with them. I am also really, really lucky to surround myself with amazing mothers who would rather enlighten me than snub me. But not every single mother is like that.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

I'd love to write some eloquent comment but my asexual pregnant tuckus is tired so I'll just say - Yeah, I totally agree.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Karen Bodkin said...

As a mother who embraces so very many different sides of who she is, I really LOVED this post. Catherine, you are such a wonderful writer. xo

6:35 PM  
Blogger Pgoodness said...

Yes, different. Astounding, amazingly, abruptly different. This was a wonderful post.

8:35 PM  
Blogger MamaMo said...

HBM, thank you so much for beginning this wonderful dialogue - I have thoroughly enjoyed it and will continue to reflect upon it.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You hit the nail on the head.

8:58 PM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

The only thing I regret about not being a mother is that I will never have the opportunity to understand how much my mother loves me. That she DOES is apparent.

What I can't get, without a child of my own, is WHY? Why did she do so much? What gave her such reserves of kindness, patience and self-sacrifice? It seems CRAZY to me. I know that she must have gotten something special along with giving birth, but I can't tell you what it is.

Last night, thinking about the millions of kindnesses my mother has shown me (for instance, when I was sick, she used to smooth my sheets when I got up to use the restroom so they would be crisp and cool when I returned), I became so angry that some people have to grow up without that kind of love. I wanted to scream and yell at the bad moms, "Don't you UNDERSTAND what you are doing?"

I know Oprah simpers "Motherhood is the most important job..." and it sounds trivial after a while but she is right. Parenthood is. It just is.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Amen, sister.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Girlplustwo said...

standing up and applauding you Bad.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, I am a new reader. And, I really appreciated what you wrote.

You put words behind my thinking and now I can speak on the subject without sounding self righteous.

Now, what about those parents that claim a higher superiority after having TWO kids. "Oh you only have once kid, wait 'til you have two."

10:54 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

i'm with the very small minority who've spoken here as being upset. don't think that means mad, or offended, or anything like that. i mean it in the most literal sense - a part of me has been upset, shifted around, disturbed from its resting place. my instinctive reaction was anger, because you said all the things that i HATE hearing. "oh, you just don't know what it's like, because you're not a mother." i want to be. so badly. i feel like i've spent my whole life waiting to have my babies. i love them so much already that i already call them my babies. in my heart, i'm a mom - i just haven't met my children yet. i hate being automatically shut out of the world i most want to be a part of.

but the other thing is that i hate hearing that from all the people who sneer it at me with condescension and give me a demeaning pat on the head (figuratively speaking) while they say it. "oh, there there, little girl. someday you'll learn." i just want to hit those people - don't talk to me like i don't know anything about motherhood, because trust me, i get plenty of snapshots from being a nanny. do i fully know the heartbreaking emotional surge that comes with giving birth to a person who is - at once - both a part of me and uniquely him- or herself? no, and i won't until it happens for me. but i know plenty, and until i know more, i don't want to always be reminded by snobby parents that i'm not a part of their special club.

yes, it makes me angry, but you don't. you phrased it all in a straightforward way, and what you say is true. it just reminds me of all the people who say it less kindly, and they just remind me that i'm still not a mommy yet. and that breaks me heart.

1:15 AM  
Blogger me said...

A great truth beautifully expressed. I'll be adding you to my roll :)

Your experiences change you whether it's travelling, being your own boss, surviving illness or becoming a parent. I think the great impact of being a parent is that it changes you fundamentally for the rest of your life. Other experiences, although profound, usually "lose" some of their impact after a while.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

i heart HBM

Running on empty

7:33 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

i do just want to say, though, that lara hit something on the head for me. the general feeling of "someday you'll get it" is one as parents we need to be careful about. i don't think you are doing it in this post, but it is a tendency that moms and dads often tend to have toward the childless and we need to avoid that as much as we can. i've also been in other situations where i felt "excluded" because of my lack of experience be it a certain type of grief a religious experience or a race issue, to name only a few examples. sometimes it is better to try and discuss and share with the "other" rather than dismiss the outsider. again, i don't think you are dismissing the outsider in this case, but it is a common attitude among people who regard themselves as different in someway.

excellent post.

Running on empty

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree and I wouldn't have until 9 months ago when I had my baby. It really does change you.

Judging by some of the comments, I think you might have opened up a new can of worms with this post. Hang strong!

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geeklady Said:
"Where are the FILF/DILF acronyms? The smarmy 'foxy fathers' or 'delicious daddies' in the media?

Fuck this. Sexy is an attitude, not a number on the scale, a level of trendiness, or a mode of apparel."

My Response:
Well, that was my POINT. Sexy IS an attitude, and Moms (in my experience) turn it off.


11:25 AM  
Blogger scarbie doll said...

Admittedly, I haven't been here in a while. But this was a solid post CC.

I never wanted to believe the difference between moms and non-moms. Then I became one and suddenly the differences were jarringly obvious. Aw heck, I don't want to crowd your inbox. Maybe I'll just right my own damn post about it. Thanks for the inspiration.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, HBM, I didn't mean that you offended me. I mean, as a knee jerk reaction, yes, but I absolutely understand that you weren't intending to.

I think it comes back to the truth hurts. Sometimes, you can soften it and not be quite so hurtful, sometimes nothing but bare honesty will do.

It's just a part of life, and I am not afraid to admit that when it is FINALLY my turn to get knocked up that I won't turn to the first person who makes an assvice comment from Camp A and say "what do you know, have you ever been knocked up?"

Just like when I used to hate my Dad for telling me to dress warmer when I used to complain that the house was too cold, and then WH and I had been living on our own for six months, and I had paid six electric bills, and WH complained that it was cold and I said "go put a sweatshirt on". Without batting an eyelash. Same, same, same thing. :)

11:31 AM  
Blogger Tracy said...

I agree with what you wrote, parenting does make you different, just like every other experience in one's life makes one different from everyone else. Experience is what makes us who we are. What can be irritating to me is when women assume that motherhood is the ultimate experience that defines a woman. As you mentioned above, there are lots of "Camp Bs," and for me, some of those Camp Bs are just as important, or more so, than my experience as a mother. I think its foolish for women to assume they will bond simply because of their shared experience with motherhood. I am a mother in my mid-thirties who suffers from infertility and who spent the last dozen or so years working on an advanced degree. When I am thrust into a situation with a woman in her early twenties who chose to have her children young, who gets pregnant at the blink of an eye, and who has no desire to continue her education, the fact that we are both mothers will do little to counterbalance the fact that we have LITTLE ELSE IN COMMON. I'm not trying to disagree with you, just add to your thought...while motherhood gives us all a passport, those passports are not all to the same country. There are many, many different types of mothers, just like there are many, many different types of women, and the mere fact that two women have a child is no indicator of those women's compatibility or "same-iority."

1:11 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

Wait a minute. You don't drive? I'm now wondering if our epistemic communities overlap ** at all **


1:26 PM  
Blogger Karen MEG said...


3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sueb0b, your comment makes me want to be a better mother. thanks for the beautiful words.

tracy, i agree completely. well said.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MILF??? I'm trying, I'm trying, truly I am ... but what does it mean????

4:39 PM  
Blogger Ms. Huis Herself said...

How true, true, true. Thank you for this!

12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off let me say I loved your post and agreed with it very much.

I'm going to make a total ass of myself in front of all your readers and tell you the truth right now. I DO think I am BETTER THAN **A LOT** (not all) of non-parents. But that is just me, being honest. I find that a lot of people without children tend to hook onto things (cats, dogs, fashion, self-absorption, their careers, haha, I am being SO INCREDIBLY stereotypical right now.) and that's all they see. I've actually let go of a lot of my friends that don't have kids since I became a parent because we simply don't have things in common anymore. They will never understand what it is like to have children, but I understand where they are---that's who I was before children! It's hard to listen to a friend complain about how she had such a hard day because she "got a speeding ticket and her heel broke and they gave that other girl the promotion!" When you just want to scream, yah that happened to me too, before I had kids, but today I had to watch my daughter have three seizures and take the littlest one to the ER for a massive ear infection." Now that is a bad day! We have been where they are. Now we are mother's as well. That doesn't make us better people, but c'mon, we've been there done that. Don't act like you know what you are talking about until you've pushed another human being out of your vagina. Hell YES I'm going to claim superiority! I've done what non-parents do PLUS some!

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes being a mother makes one different (not superior - which I don't think you ever meant to imply). I agree with what many of your comments have said that so do many other experiences (make you different).

I also think though that there are lots of kinds of mothers and I have trouble with the campA and campB concept in it's simplicity. There are mothers who don't want to be mothers, there are mothers whose whole life is ONLY about being a mother, there are mothers who only 2% of their lives are about being a mother, there are mothers who would like to be mothers again but can't, there are mothers who should never ever have become a mother. All of these women (and many more such categories) would see and experience motherhood verrrrrry differently from each other. And they'd see and experience the world almost as differently as the mom vs non-mom discussion.

Just another thought to throw into the ring.

Such a great post as always my friend.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Dr. Leah - Consultant for Lawyers said...

This was a great post - and is a great discussion.

15 years ago I was in a training where we were asked to split into two groups - agree or disagree with this statement: "People without children can understand people who have children."

I didn't have children and stood on the side of the room with the people who agreed with this statement (not surprisingly - we were all people who did not have children). The parents were all on the other side of the room.

I remember being kind of offended that they didn't think that I/we could understand them. This all changed three years later, when I became pregnant and then had my first child. I had no idea how much differently I would feel (as well as how unprepared for motherhood I would feel.)

This quote sums up everything for me:

"Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." Elizabeth Stone

Thanks for such a profound series of discussions.


10:46 AM  
Blogger ALI said...

Before I had children I wanted them, but I never gave any thought to how it would change me or how I would be different because of it. I was just focused on the wanting children part. I did everything I could to learn from other mothers around me.

My own mother had to be a mother to three of us under horrible circumstances. We were poor, my brother was kidnapped and returned, she and my dad divorced, she remarried, and he left after the kidnapping.She had no support from anyone, not even her mother. I saw up close how hard it could be, the act of sheer will and love it can be to just get up every day and keep surviving, and try to keep us normal. Because of this I have never underestimated what being a mother meant, what I was committing myself too.

I underestimated the joy, the fun parts, the silliness. How just looking at those two sets of huge eyes can make me sing inside. No one could have explained that to me, and because of that, what I would be willing to do for my children no matter what...

Its not tangible, it's not anything I could have wrapped my head around before I had these little people.

Life is a set of new discoveries and experiences that form who you are, this is just one of them.

11:53 AM  
Blogger ALI said...

sorry that was so long-as usual you sparked some deep thinking!

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this yesterday and had to take an evening to calm down before I commented as I know that you had every intention of not being condescending to strangers. But that is how it came off to me.

(I should state, although I don't know why, that I don't have children for myriad reasons -- I can't for my health, for one -- but none of those reasons is that I dislike children.)

I agree with Leah that this is most likely a semantics thing, and I'm glad that you cleared that up in the comments, as here are traditionally the two people who tell me I just can't understand what it's like:

- That guy who went to Thailand after the dot com bust and now came home to discuss how no one can know poverty or understand the beauty of a "simpler" culture until you visit a country like that. Then he takes up yoga and strips his apartment of knick knacks, but hopes you won't notice that he kept his iPod and is making six figures as a consultant but doesn't send any cash to charity. (This guy is also That Girl who moved to a Big City and is condescending to people in Small Town about the energy of The City, as well as the Art Major who went to Rome over the summer and tells you that you just can't even get a sense of Michelangelo's David until you see it, and don't even look at a picture of it because it's nowhere near the same.)

-Victims who genuinely went through something horrific and genuinely cannot describe how awful they felt.

The Victim gets a pass, as they're right: I don't know what it's like to have gone through what they've experienced, and to pretend I understand without a similar experience is condescending to them. I can only offer an empathetic ear.

But parents aren't victims. At least I hope they don't see themselves that way.

Therefore, parents who claim I will just never get it fall into the World Traveler/ Big City Girl/ Art Major realm. It reads like an assumption that I'm either not smart enough or imaginative enough to take my own experiences and come up with an inkling of what they're talking about. And no, I will never get the magnitude of love/frustration/devotion that parents feel toward a child, but I know how my parents feel about me, and I know how I feel about my nieces and nephews. I get the microcosm if not the macrocosm.

I want my friends with children to tell me how they are and what they're doing because those people are my friends. If they assume I cannot possibly get the smallest idea of that relationship, though, they are doing me, our friendship, and their children a disservice.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Beth, it was certainly not my intention to suggest that non-parents can't get 'even the smallest idea' of the parental experience - my analogy about travelling/passports/etc was meant to convey the idea that someone who has never been to MommyLand (or Rome, or Thailand, or where-ever) simply can't have firsthand experience. They can certainly have indirect experience, they can study it, read about it, expose themselves to the culture, blah blah blah - but they'll never get, ENTIRELY, what it feels like to be Roman or Thai or, yes, MOMMY.

The one minor change I would make to that argument - after considering Sandra's comment - is that women who *try* to become mothers, want badly to become mothers, do experience firsthand some of what I'm talking about - I included birth mothers and mothers who have lost pregnancies in the post because such an experience begins from the moment of falling in love with your child, whether or not that child ends up being your or coming into being at all. I would add that, upon reflection, that the *idea* of child can be fallen in love with, and that that gives one a taste of the experience of motherhood before one even gets one's citizenship card.

I'd also add - per Sandra's comment - that the experiences I've described aren't necessarily universal to all mothers. One needs to be a mother to know, firsthand, these experiences, but not all mothers will experience. It's what we call in the social sciences a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.

WHOA. May need to write more about this. If that's even possible. You all have given me so much tremendous food for thought.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification -- I did get what you were trying to say with the whole passport thing (which I do think is a good analogy) after I'd calmed down, but then got all riled up again when other commenters kept reiterating that I could just NEVER, EVER -- oh, and did I mention? -- EVER get it.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Further to Beth's comment:

Beth, you say that "the Victim gets a pass, as they're right: I don't know what it's like to have gone through what they've experienced, and to pretend I understand without a similar experience is condescending to them. I can only offer an empathetic ear...
But parents aren't victims. At least I hope they don't see themselves that way... Therefore, parents who claim I will just never get it fall into the World Traveler/ Big City Girl/ Art Major realm."

I disagree with the comparison - parents are not victims in the sense of being victims, but they are more directly comparable to your example of victim, inasmuch as their experience is as profoundly life-altering (facing death firsthand, facing birth - *directly* comparable). The travellers, the art-school majors - their experiences, while important and deeply felt, are superficial in comparison. They just are.

So, no, few parents would refer themselves as victims in any amount of seriousness (don't get me started on the question of whether I would only be half-jesting on the many occassions that I DO describe myself as a victim) - but 'victims' are not the only ones whose lives are altered by profound experiences. The counterpart to life-changing negative experiences (death, injury, loss) is life-changing positive experience (birth, adoption) which change lives as - I would actually say more - fundamentally.

To compare parenthood to going to New York or Thailand or art school fundamentally misunderstands it. As I said above, travelling and education are more akin to the vicarious experience of parenthood that people experience as aunts and uncles and friends. It's not firsthand experience of citizenship in parenting - it's tourism. It can be deeply felt, and deeply loved, but it's not the same.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

gah - that sounded pissy, didn't it? sorry. your example did make me think, but then I got all teacher-y about it. sorry.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No worries. It was a good point that flaws the analogy.

I didn't mean to compare parenthood to traveling to Thailand. I meant to compare Smug Parents to Smug World Travelers.

But if we are going to put parenthood in the Life Changes realm (let's avoid Victimhood as its title, shall we?), haven't we all had life changes, positive and negative? And granted, I don't know what it was like to become a parent, but I do know what it was like to be in the waiting room of the hospital as well as greeting the plane from China when my sisters became parents.

It didn't feel like tourism. It felt like I moved to Rome, and granted, I didn't move there permanently, but I learned to speak the language and understand the customs.

*Sigh.* I guess it all just comes down to individual experience and assumptions we make about other people without knowing the full story.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Minnesota Matron said...

Seems like HBM and Beth are grappling with the heart of the matter.

So there are key experiences, like surviving a rape, fighting on the front lines of a war, fighting a possibly terminal disease, etc. that are transformative.

It's not that the person who hasn't actively experienced said event can't imagine or empathize or try to somehow reproduce. We must! Otherwise, how do we as a culture make meaning, convey information, grow?

But the experience itself -- and I would put parenthood in here -- in transformative.

Now, the hard-core post-structuralist in me would note that we transform on a minute by minute basis. I'm not the same person I was when I woke up: lots of little things that made up my day now course through me.

But sometimes the experiences that shape us are noticeable, identifiable because they transform us into something slightly (or greatly) different than ourselves.

People ask me sometimes if I can imagine my life without children.

I would have an amazing life. I absolutely can envision that life. I see friends my own age without children and hope that I can extend myself enough to walk in their shoes.

So I think that give/take is not only possible, but essential.

And finally, the feminist in me is just appalled at MILF. I think you can substitute any female role ("my friend's sister" or "Sisters" or "Grandmas" etc. and it would be equally offensive. Ugh.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Minnesota Matron said...

Seems like HBM and Beth are grappling with the heart of the matter.

So there are key experiences, like surviving a rape, fighting on the front lines of a war, fighting a possibly terminal disease, etc. that are transformative.

It's not that the person who hasn't actively experienced said event can't imagine or empathize or try to somehow reproduce. We must! Otherwise, how do we as a culture make meaning, convey information, grow?

But the experience itself -- and I would put parenthood in here -- in transformative.

Now, the hard-core post-structuralist in me would note that we transform on a minute by minute basis. I'm not the same person I was when I woke up: lots of little things that made up my day now course through me.

But sometimes the experiences that shape us are noticeable, identifiable because they transform us into something slightly (or greatly) different than ourselves.

People ask me sometimes if I can imagine my life without children.

I would have an amazing life. I absolutely can envision that life. I see friends my own age without children and hope that I can extend myself enough to walk in their shoes.

So I think that give/take is not only possible, but essential.

And finally, the feminist in me is just appalled at MILF. I think you can substitute any female role ("my friend's sister" or "Sisters" or "Grandmas" etc. and it would be equally offensive. Ugh.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Late to the party and not a mom, but what the heck? One of the great confirming moments of my life occurred a few months ago when my son (who had his first child and my first grandchild last year)looked at me and said, "You know, you always told me I would never understand what it was like to have a child until I had one of my own. I'll be damned if you weren't right!"

I actually already knew he had figured this out by the look on his face when he picked up his daughter in the hospital. But it was still cool hearing it from him.

I submit that this may be one of those things that genuinely can never be explained to people who haven't experienced it. It is beyond intellect, beyond interest, beyond empathy. It simply is.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Sass said...

I agree with your post. Before I had my child I wondered if there would be 'enough' love for my husband AND baby.

As a childless friend of mine said, 'durr, yes. there's ALWAYS enough love. It doesn't run out'.

She was right.

Remembering this conversation helps me to guard against being patronising to childless friends on the subject of love and how i see things 'differently' now I have a child.

(With one notable exception: I still feel incredibly sad/angry/enraged/appalled at the ignorance of a childless broadcaster/politician who suggested the McCanns were making an unnecessary fuss about the loss of their daughter.)

5:43 PM  
Blogger Stomper Girl said...

What a fantastic post and combox discussion.

Some of this discussion, for me anyway, centres on feelings of identity, and how you define yourself. The MILF debate is partly about blurring the old boundaries of virgin/mother/whore, and you could maybe read how much you react to the MILF 'classification' by how you feel about your place, or womens' place in general, in regards to those boundaries.

I struggle with being classified primarily as a mother, I got insulted when after I announced my pregnancy a friend started calling me Mum (I'm not your mother!!) and I have encouraged my kids to call me by my name not my job title, (which worried a surprising amount of people) so the whole MILF thing jangles my very bones, because if a guy fancies me then surely my parental status is irrelevant?

In regards to the discussion in this post, I feel that mother/parenthood does change your life, and has a profound impact on your sense of identity, not to mention the way in which you perceive the world. Which may explain the *them and us* mentality that occasionally arises. A large part of parenthood for me has been about putting aside some - not all!- of my ego to help me realise that I am no longer the centre of my universe. But many people don't need parenthood to realise this, and some people never do no matter how many children they have!

Thanks for having this discussion!

9:19 PM  

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