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[Forum]

The Grand Shattering

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I never wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be a person. My identity crisis began at age three, when I wanted to be Popeye but realized that I had to be Olive Oyl instead. I remember throwing myself down on my bed, wondering how I’d ever figure it out. I remember exactly how I felt because I feel that way still.

Bombarded by inviolable stereotypes that distinguished between Mommy and all other roles, I decided that I would be a boy in the shape of a girl, a man in the shape of a woman. My early fantasies were of fighting with the boys in my second-grade class and then making out with them. I wore boys’ clothes well into middle school, and even after I caught on that girls were supposed to peg their jeans and wear sweaters with brightly colored triangles and squares, I wasn’t willing to begin that drag performance. Not yet.

“Untitled (Putting on Make-Up), Kitchen Table series II,” by Carrie Mae Weems, whose work was on view last year at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York City © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City

“Untitled (Putting on Make-Up), Kitchen Table series II,” by Carrie Mae Weems, whose work was on view last year at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York City © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City

I moved to New York when I was twenty-three. My friends were already getting married. My plan, which I didn’t mind telling anyone who brought up marriage, progeny, or real estate, was to wait until all my friends got married and left town. Then I’d move upstate, buy a little house, and seduce my neighbors’ teenage boys until I died of loneliness or old age.

A man who used to cuff and clamp me, and who once cut a hole in my tights with his coke razor and fucked me through it, became a close friend. One month I had an unusually heavy period. I think I might actually be having a miscarriage, I told him. At least you aren’t having a kid, he replied, shuddering. We both laughed.

For years, I asked writers who were also mothers how they prioritized the various components of their identities — was Writer below Mother, and if so, would it be possible to reverse that? One woman told me that her identity wasn’t a ladder but a pie chart containing slices of variable sizes. That answer sounded to me like an oblique admission that she wasn’t a writer first. Since I didn’t want to be anything but a writer first, I dismissed her.

In my twenties, I couldn’t imagine a meaningful life in which I didn’t have as much time for silent contemplation as I had then. I couldn’t understand the mothers who assumed that I envied them or that motherhood was my goal.

I didn’t believe that motherhood could be more joyous than my existing life. To me, mothers were people who had decided that a life without children, my life, wasn’t fulfilling enough, wasn’t joyous enough. Before my son was born, my life was full. There was nothing missing. There was no reason to have a child. The longer I sought a reason, the more remote such a reason seemed.

As the years passed, I came to see how many serious women writers were and are mothers, and that my fear — that being a mother would prevent me from being a writer — might be irrational. Perhaps having a child might make me a better writer, I thought. Or perhaps if I didn’t have a child, I might become a worse writer, or maybe even a worse person.

I didn’t want a child. Even after I decided to become pregnant, I didn’t want a child. I conceived one as a hedge against future regret.

Before I became a mother I imagined I would be a writer at some times and a mother at others, but I cannot compartmentalize the two activities. Motherhood has no compartment; I am always a mother. If the babysitter’s car breaks down, if my son steps on a bee at the park, if my husband needs to travel for work, I am a mother first. I’m a mother even when I’m writing. My subjects haven’t changed, and neither has my form, but the quality of attention of this new mind, the mind of someone who is responsible for a helpless person, is different — more distractible and therefore more desperate not to be distracted.

Before I became a mother I believed that writing was the center of my life. Everything else revolved around it — day jobs, relationships, family commitments. It didn’t feel like a choice; I was in thrall to the need to write. Some metaphysical force impelled me. To support my writing I skipped food and sleep, kept ridiculous hours, traveled to distant residencies. I always believed that the point of writing for an audience was to rescue the suicidal and to console the dying. But the point of motherhood is to help someone immediately, to console a person who is right there next to you. Writing is a choice, I’ve learned — for my son’s helplessness leaves me no choice.

I now look back at my old life, when I believed myself to be as happy and fulfilled as a person could be, with the same maternal pity I used to despise. It seems obvious to me that my refusal to have a child was a way to avoid the challenges of extreme love, to avoid participating in dismantling the stereotypes that had brainwashed me.

I pre-mourned the end of my writing career and writer-self throughout my pregnancy, but the crisis I anticipated never arrived. Now I merely feel like a writer who is a mother, or a mother who is a writer, depending on my immediate circumstances. The fear that I’d stop being a writer, whatever that means, is gone.

I used to believe that maximizing the number of hours reading, writing, and thinking about writing would make me the best writer I could be, and that my friend who had chosen to have three children just didn’t value being a writer as much as I did. Then I had a child and found that the amount of time I spend writing isn’t the only thing that makes me a better writer. I also grow by weathering trauma, practicing patience, being seasoned by love.

Before I had my son I was convinced that motherhood would ruin my writing and cause a profound loss of self that would never be compensated. My old self is indeed gone, but I perceive the world more carefully and more lovingly than before because I am more aware of the effects of love and of time on an individual person. And I am more aware of the limits of love and of time.

The biggest change that motherhood has wrought on me is this: whether or not I’m happy is no longer the central question of my life. This disposition is often mischaracterized as selflessness. But if it is in fact selflessness, it isn’t a willed state. I feel the need to care for my son as an itch, an urge. This is what people mean when they describe the rearing of young as a biological necessity. Lest you accuse me of wanting only to usher my own DNA into the future, I’ll tell you a little story.

When my son was almost three, one of my friends sent me a photograph of her newborn daughter. My phone twitched and I pressed the little button and saw the face of a baby in profile, milk-drunk. My breasts tingled with an unmistakable feeling. They were filling with milk. I hadn’t nursed my son in nearly two years. No milk had come in all that time, but now I squeezed my nipples, and milk came out. If there were an earthquake, a bombing, I could nurse the orphans.

Those who are not on intimate terms with illness, poverty, violence, exile, and war are fundamentally different from those who are. That difference isn’t a choice; it’s simply there, a gulf that cannot be bridged. I can’t know what it’s like to be an orphan, for example, and few of my friends know, as I do, what it’s like to be seriously ill. Those who have not passed through the gauntlet of motherhood cannot be equal in experience to those who have.

Women who deride motherhood as merely an animal condition have accepted the patriarchal belief that motherhood is trivial. It’s true that motherhood can seem trivial to women who have been insulated from the demands of others; they are given few reasons to value motherhood and many reasons to value individual fulfillment. They are taught, as I was, to value self-realization as the essential component of success, the index of one’s contribution to the world, the test of our basic humanity. Service to the world was understood as a heroic act achieved by a powerful ego. Until I’d burrowed out from under those beliefs, being a writer seemed a worthier goal than being a mother.

The point of having a child is to be rent asunder, torn in two. Years before I had my son I heard of an artist explaining why she had decided to become a mother: I didn’t want to reach the end of my life intact. Imperious, I judged this to be sentimental — permanently damaged by a chronic illness, I considered myself already ruined and misunderstood by the healthy and normal. And what is more normal than the ability to give birth? But motherhood is a different sort of damage. It is a shattering, a disintegration of the self, after which the original form is quite gone. Still, it is a breakage that we are, as a species if not as individuals, meant to survive.

I want to read books that were written in desperation, by people who are disturbed and overtaxed, who balance on the extreme edge of experience. I want to read books by people who are acutely aware that death is coming and that abiding love is our last resort. And I want to write those books.

is the author, most recently, of Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf).

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August 2015