Although it's been almost two years since my second child Sylvie was born, I recently started reading Life After Birth: What Even Your Friends Won't Tell You About Motherhood by Kate Figes with Jean Zimmerman. It was published in 1998 and was the first of a small number of books that address the incredible changes a woman must face after having a child. There are a lot of books on pregnancy and childbirth and a lot of books on parenting and child development but there are not many at all on this particular subject. While I was pregnant with Luke, my first, six years ago, Andi Buchanan was kind enough to send me a copy of her excellent collection of personal essays, Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, and I think that it is the only book I read at the time that addressed what might happen to me, physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially, after I gave birth.
Of course, the things that happen to you after you give birth and take your new baby home are the kinds of thing you have to experience in order to even begin to fully understand them. It is one thing to read that breastfeeding might be difficult and another for your breasts to blow up to the size of balloons and hurt so much you're tempted to prick them with a pin, to see if relief might come with the pop. It is one thing to be told that you will be exhausted and another to actually feel so tired you could lie down on the dirty floor of a busy grocery store and fall asleep immediately. It is one thing to read you might not be very interested in sex again for some time and another to feel as if you might scream if your partner even touches the back of your hand with the tip of his little finger. It is one thing to be told that you have never before felt such love as the love you'll have for your baby and it is another to be taken hostage by an emotion so powerful, intense, and daunting that "love" isn't a strong enough word for it -- or, worse yet and not uncommonly, to feel nothing much at all, at least in the beginning.
In Life After Birth, Kate Figes contends that these kinds of intense experiences mean that mothers have more in common with one another than they do with other childless women who have similar backgrounds and interests. In almost an aside, she writes:
Motherhood is a great leveler. The most privileged mother has far more in common with a socially and financially deprived mother than with a childless woman from the same social background. As I searched for differences among mothers I became acutely aware of the fact that their experiences felt uncannily similar. Money, education, and expectations inevitably affect the way that women manage motherhood, but the essence of the experience is essentially the same. The experience of childbirth differs from woman to woman depending on her physical makeup, her state of mind, the position and size of the baby, and the environment she gives birth in, but the physical rite of passage of giving birth is the same for every woman. It is an extraordinarily powerful event that can be enjoyable or nightmarish, but either way it is a landmark memory.
She points out that almost almost all mothers share a sense of wonder at the miracle of procreation; sooner or later feel frighteningly intense maternal love; find it difficult to manage the demands of work and motherhood; undergo mental and physical difficulties related to pregnancy and labour and often don't have time to recover; and find that their relationships with their friends, families and, most importantly, their partners, have changed in unexpected and unpleasant ways.
I agree with all of this, yes, but I found myself taken aback by the assertion that I have more in common with other mothers than I do with, say, my childless friends who share my background and interests. What does this even mean, to say you have more in common with one person than another? After all, having "things in common" isn't something you can objectively measure. Certainly being a mother is now a central aspect of my identity, perhaps even the most important, but I am still the person I was before I had my children. Do I now have more in common with, say, an impoverished fifteen-year-old mother of four in an African village, someone who doesn't even speak the same language I do, than one of my good friends, a lawyer by training, an avid reader, and a writer of my age and social class, who also happens to be a woman who hasn't given birth?
Although it's true that I have perhaps a better understanding of that other mother's emotions and concerns than I ever would've before, and more compassion for her, I still can't possibly understand the challenges she faces in her day-to-day life and, in fact, wouldn't be able to survive them with my sanity intact were we to somehow change places. And, having spent a lot of time with other stay-at-home mothers over the last five years or so, many of whom are much younger than I am and who don't share my interests or educational background, I must say that I think I might've gone crazy long before if I hadn't been able to talk about anything other than motherhood and childrearing with like-minded (and yes, childless!) friends every now and then.
What do you think? Are you, by virtue of having given birth, a member of a new sort of tribe that transcends class, social, and economic boundaries? Do you have more in common with other mothers than you do with any other childless women? Or does that kind of thinking marginalize mothers even further?