Unnatural Mother

The title is what a famous single academic called another famous academic after hearing that the latter spent her post-delivery hours in the hospital (no doubt while her newborn napped) working on a revise and resubmit.

I, too, am an unnatural mother.  (Though with my first, I did catch up on the Harry Potter series in the hospital– there was a 3 day regression running at home, so giving birth came at a good time.)

I don’t identify with the standard tropes.  And I think I only introspect on motherhood when I read one of these tropes and find I don’t identify with it.  Since I no longer read the NYTimes and am off forums, that happens a lot less frequently these days, and I suspect I’m happier for it.

Grad school changed my entire sense of self in the way that bootcamp tears someone down before building them up again.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy changed me to become closer to the person I wanted to be.  Motherhood, not so much.

I don’t feel that motherhood has changed my life in ways I never would have dreamed.  It’s been pretty much what I expected.

I did think I would still love my cats as much as my babies, but it turns out that they actually did become second-class citizens.  Loved and cosseted, but no longer the most important creatures in the house.

DH says that he never would have noticed how many curse words and how many panty-shots there were in Goonies before having kids.  He also still feels just as much himself before and after kids… and he is pretty much just as I’d imagined he’d be.  (Wonderful, of course.)

Loss of autonomy… no, that’s what work is for.  Also, as my grandmother always said, hire good help.

Overwhelmed… well, sometimes, but not usually.  DH is really great with children and once we got DC1’s food issues figured out (green peppers) it wasn’t so bad.  There was a semester of awfulness in which the three of us were constantly sick, but that’s not entirely DC1’s fault– it was a bad flu year for everybody.  We did wait to have a second child until the first was able to entertain hirself and could help us out, which helps.

It is true that my kids are amazing.  (And I hope all parents think their kids are amazing.)  They get more amazing every day.  I don’t want them to stay babies– I love seeing them grow into responsible small adults.  (And with that evidence, how can I feel guilt?)

Would I be different without children?  Well, yes.  All my life I’ve been tackling difficult goals and usually I figure out what it takes to get where I want to go and decide whether or not the effort is worth it.  That year-and-some of infertility with the miscarriage was the first time that I ever thought that maybe no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I wanted something, no matter what I put myself through, I might not be able to get what I wanted more than anything.  Because my body was failing me.  But then I unexpectedly got pregnant in the end and that lesson remained unlearned.  So DC1 brought me back to the me who tackles challenges, and that lesson will have to wait another day.

So I may be an unnatural mother, following in a long line of pragmatic career women with perfect children, but I am a happy self-confident mother.

Are you an unnatural mother?  What tropes do you or do you not identify with?  Whether or not you have children, what has changed your life (if anything)?

56 Responses to “Unnatural Mother”

  1. scantee Says:

    I am an unnatural mother.* I said somewhere else (Wandsci’s place or Blue Milk’s?) that while I adore my children I do not adore Motherhood. The type of mothering that is portrayed in the media does not resonate with me and I don’t feel like a huge part of my identity is wrapped up in being a mom.

    *Or am I a very natural mother? Parenthood has just not been shocking to me. It’s changed my life of course but in ways I think I anticipated beforehand.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Perhaps natural from a biological/evolutionary sense, but not so natural in terms of fitting into the unnatural constructs that Western society places around motherhood?

  2. bogart Says:

    Hmmm. I like to say that polarfleece and envirosax have changed my life (and they have, also, more recently, a google Nexus), but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about. Though all are unnatural if by unnatural we mean “not found in nature.”

    Well, getting married, which involved acquiring a husband, two dependents (stepkids), and a mortgage certainly changed my life. I guess those things would have accrued over time anyway (not the stepkids necessarily, but the dependents), but grabbing them all at once fresh out of grad school was pretty much a jump off the deep end. Becoming a mom (after already having become a stepmom) not so much. I mean, it restored my sanity after the craziness that was infertility, but it didn’t change my day-to-day life or my thinking. And as I’ve said previously, Hrdy’s Mother Nature book had provided me with a broad, rich, and not entirely rosy view of what “natural” motherhood can entail, so, yeah …

    I was horrified when printing/collating (something administrative) letters for a tenure packet to see the candidate extolled for the fact that she — well, I forget details, but the gist of it was “spent her post-delivery hours in the hospital working on a revise and resubmit” (I believe her newborn was ostensibly cradled in her arm or a sling while she did this). Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with her doing so, but I do object to — nay, am horrified by — the claim that the timing of this activity might identify her as having a greater commitment to her work than had she, say, slept, cooed over her newborn, worked with lactation consultants, compared the pros and cons of different formulas, or Skyped with her mom, or for that matter her college roommate.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      polarfleece and envirosax totally count.

      I did not like Hrdy’s book at all. It irritated me that she got wrong the stuff in my field that I know about (and misspelled the names of the people she was citing on top of that, I mean, come ON, was there no quality control?) And then the reading about all the horrible gruesome ways that people kill and torture babies… not the best thing to keep nightmares away from a pregnant mother.

      My personal view is that people should not mention their family lives in their job packets at all (except for the, “I am looking to move to your tiny burgh for family reasons [that I will not go into detail about], [so please don’t think you can’t get me]”). That strikes me as unprofessional and it makes it difficult for firms that are trying to follow anti-discrimination law to follow it.

      • bogart Says:

        Fair enough, on Hrdy. Clearly I don’t know your field well enough to catch the problems you describe (as I didn’t). And yes, I read it long, long before I became a mother to an infant, which I think is likely key to being able to tolerate it. The photo of the breastfed son/formula fed daughter twins from a setting lacking safe water still haunts me.

        The candidate didn’t mention her family (or post-partum activities), it was one of the recommenders (a co-author?) who did, which IMHO makes it all the worse.

        Yeah, when I was teaching at the SLAC my DH interviewed at a nearby (-ish) Ivy and told them of my proximity and our quaint desire to live together. I would NOT have recommended that he do that (though his was a small field and these were colleagues he knew — a natural topic of conversation) and suspect it led to their absurdly low offer (later followed by an only unacceptably low offer), though I also suspect that their inability to believe that anyone would reject a job offer from IvyLeagueUs probably also contributed.

      • bogart Says:

        Oh, and on additional thought, becoming a mom (much more than a stepmom) *has* significantly impinged on my energies to interact face-to-face or with spoken language (not in writing) with other human beings. I have limited capacities in that realm, and oh my! does my DS drain them. The ones he doesn’t claim, my DH does. I assume this will improve (rebalance) once my son sleeps ’til noon and refuses to speak to me, i.e., teenagehood. Meanwhile it does, literally, affect my ability to work (i.e. a good thing much of what I do requires limited human interaction; I am glad not to be managing or teaching much in this phase of my life) and shape my decisions about extracurricular activities. And thank heavens for email/the internet, which save me from choosing to completely cut myself off from non-family human contact (I exaggerate, but not by much).

  3. Cloud Says:

    I did find becoming a mother very disorienting, and it took my almost a year to get to a place where I felt comfortable with how I’d integrated motherhood and the rest of me. Now (almost 6 years later), I can’t really remember why I found it so hard, but I suspect the underlying reasons were the fact that we needed quite a bit of help to establish breastfeeding, had feeding issues early on (turned out to be an intolerance to milk in my diet, which caused what I called “screaming gas”), and had a baby whose sleep patterns were really hard on us and that everyone told me I should “fix” but that I couldn’t change no matter what I did. I started out motherhood feeling really incompetent.

    I do still get the “unnatural mother” vibes now and then, because I am so sure that I want to work rather than be at home with my kids all day, and because I’m still pretty ambitious for myself.

    I think I spent my post delivery time trying to nap anytime the baby would let me. If I had a little bit of time when I didn’t want to nap, I think I checked my email (work and home). The second time around, I probably blogged, too.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I enjoyed the break from the internet, myself!

    • scantee Says:

      Parenting my first baby was terribly hard because he was a dreadful sleeper who cried all the time. I don’t remember being surprised by it though. I think I went into it expecting things to be hard and terrible and then when parts were hard and terrible I wasn’t taken aback. Plus there were Really Great Parts so in some ways my low expectations were exceeded.

  4. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    Being in the hospital is kind of boring, especially if you had pretty easy deliveries. It’s only that we still have such hang-ups about mothers working that anyone would think answering emails in the hospital shows something that watching TV doesn’t. What an unnatural mother for turning on the TV rather than gazing at her infant adoringly!

  5. Linda Says:

    Learning to knit has changed my life. OK, that sounds silly compared to motherhood, but I think it has a big impact on how I spend my non-working time, on the friendships I’ve developed over the years, and how I spend my income. And doesn’t motherhood have an impact on those same things? As one who has no children (and never will, thankfully), I may not completely relate to the issues mothers face. But if you don’t personally know the joy of a pair of warm hand-knit socks (deliberate reference to Pablo Neruda there), perhaps you can’t relate to my life experience. ;-)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Knitting works! Though I cannot say that knowing how to knit has changed my life in any way, though it did make middle-school a bit less boring (except in the classes I wasn’t allowed to knit in). With the way yarn is so expensive compared to pre-knit clothing, it hasn’t been a hobby I’ve worked on as an adult (other than teaching DH for one of his 3 month hobby stints). At best I try to keep the mending pile small.

  6. oilandgarlic Says:

    As Laura mentioned, women probably turn on the the TV once in while instead of gazing adoringly at her infant. Not much different from checking Emails or Facebook. I personally couldn’t have done any work-related stuff but I hate the whole idea that there is only one “natural” way of motherhood.

    I’m generally impatient, so having kids made me more patient. I found it both harder and more rewarding than I expected. I also thought I would love my dogs almost as much (my fur babies, etc..) but they did become very secondary in my life, sad to say. I still love my dogs of course but it’s really not the same for me as kids at all!

  7. oilandgarlic Says:

    My first trip to Europe (and traveling in general) changed my life! Now that I think about it, there are so many things that have changed my life, not just having kids.

  8. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    I am an unnatural woman because I never wanted children and have no regrets now that I am too old to have them. (If they float your boat, then by all means have as many as you like.)

  9. NoTrustFund Says:

    At this point, with my oldest at 3, mothering feels natural to me. However, being a working mom still feels really unnatural. I want to work and will continue to work so hopefully it will start feeling more natural.

    I don’t understand the big deal of working at the hospital if that is what makes someone happy. Newborns sleep a lot. And they can sleep on you allowing you to still work, depending on your job.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    As a non-mother and therefore definitively unnatural, I have a name for a woman who criticizes another woman about something like how to spend the first few post-partum hours: “bitch.”

  11. NoTrustFund Says:

    Is there a reason you no longer read the NYTimes?

  12. Alyssa Says:

    Like Cloud, I had a hard start to motherhood with our son – he was born 5 weeks early, so was in the NICU for a week. Then we had HUGE issues feeding, he was a crier/screamer, he spit up a lot, etc.. He had another stint in the hospital at 1 month for a week. On top of that, I didn’t have many other mother friends IRL, and one that I did meet up with somewhat regularly was not supportive and…to be frank…a passive-aggressive bitch (we have a friend in common, and met at the hospital because we gave birth within hours of each other. So, more of a “friendship of opportunity” – we are no longer in contact).

    So, all that combined made me feel like I was a horrible mother – like I couldn’t do anything right and it was just not “natural” for me. I also was DYING to get back to work when I I went back after our son was about 9 months old. Now I know that’s all BS, and every one does things differently depending on what works for THEM, but it was really hard to see at the time.

    Also – yes, the cats got demoted from “fur babies” to “regular cats” — poor things ;)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I found I did not like hanging out with other new moms, for the most part. Part of that though is the area of the country I’m living in– people have very different and very strong beliefs about the “right” thing to do with parenting. So much easier to just not socialize with those folks. (Also didn’t help that DC1 was a gross motor junky.)

  13. scantee Says:

    On working in the hospital: I’m sure back in the good ol’ days women had babies and were back to manual labor work (milking the cows, picking the corn, washing the clothes, foraging for berries) right away. Why do we romanticize that type of work but criticize a woman that checks her email?

  14. Ana Says:

    Yeah, motherhood did change me. My first was what I believe they call “high needs”. He’s still “spirited” and “challenging” but the first few months we thought we had spawned a monster. He screamed constantly, never slept, was not cuddly or snuggly, would not nurse, generally NOTHING like I imagined. All this after 2 years of infertility to get pregnant, and a rough pregnancy with hyperemesis.
    I thought my “malignant” 4- year residency program was tough, and that I could do anything after that…until this child was born…I really broke down and had to build myself back up again slowly over the first year of his life. He still pushes every single button I have with remarkable precision & I need to do some maintenance work on my psyche from time to time to deal with it.
    My second is a very moderate child from the get-go. I’m glad I got the hard one first, it would have been horrible the other way ’round!
    I submitted a grant a couple of days before I delivered my second. I did spend time in the hospital reviewing the on-line submission and making changes while the baby slept. It is super boring being in the hospital and newborns sleep SO MUCH the first 24-48 hours (resting up for the 4-5 months of constant wakefulness no doubt). After my first delivery I read a novel.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Poor mommy, poor baby. High needs is hard. Our first could not be put down, but at least ze was super-cuddly. I didn’t understand why more people didn’t carry their babies around in slings until we had DC2 who hates the sling.

  15. rented life Says:

    My senior year of college, the adjunct who taught business communication told us about how she delivered baby #3 and was teaching 3 days later, because that was the only way she could get the work she needed (as contingent faculty). She didn’t present this as boasting but more as a fact of the nature of certain lines of work. (We spent a lot of time talking about getting jobs and the reality of the workplace, and not about business communication.)

    My first overseas trip (also my first time on a plane–22 hours) changed me a lot. Being laid off. Risking everything for a job in 2011 and the bad decisions that resulted from that “adventure”–many of which I’m still not comfortable talking about.

    I keep hearing “Wait til you have kids, then your life will change, your priorities will have to change, you’ll have to make sacrafices.” That just fills me with dread, I don’t want those people to be right. One person went on and one about giving up TV, and I just thought, why? Why do I have to give up my favorite show (watch, now it’ll get canceled). Why do I have to give up reading books I enjoy, writing, the quality time my husband and I need together, as part of a rite of passage for having kids? Frankly, my husband and I don’t do well spending a lot of time apart, (I realize everyone’s different), so why would we want to do that for the “sake of a kid”? (My parents spent a lot of time apart when we were children–working directly opposite shifts, all in the name of parenthood. But the resentment was so clear too.) My cousins who have young children are very much a part of this model as well. I just don’t see myself doing that, but that’s all I hear. I was once told your twenties are all about being selfish and your thirties, when you have kids, are the opposite. But I wasn’t selfish in my twenties–I didn’t go on shopping sprees or anything of that nature. (ok, we did a few times for books, but this woman clearly meant clothes and shoes. And someday the kids can read those books, hardly a waste!) I don’t know what I’m saying other than I’m tired of hearing how much I need to give up to have a baby.

    • Alyssa Says:

      LIfe does change – how could it not with a whole other person in your life practically 24/7? – but certainly doesn’t have to be like you described. In fact, I find I spend more time on my hobbies now than I did before I had a kid…maybe because I know my free time is more precious, so use it more wisely? I don’t know, but I do know you don’t have to give up who you are and the things you love when you have a child. Whoever is telling you that is either full of BS or doesn’t know how to balance their own life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I agree with Alyssa. When you add something that takes up time to your life, things will change. It may be that you don’t waste time anymore. It may be that you no longer watch TV or you get behind on series (we watch everything via Netflix these days) or do less paid work or so on. But for the most part, you get to make those decisions based on your priorities and values.

      We chose not to do the separate shifts thing, but we do use a lot of paid childcare. We value our time together as a family.

    • rented life Says:

      We DVR or netflix, I can’t think of the last time we watched something when it was actually on. (When you do, you’re like WHAT ARE ALL THESE COMMERCIALS?) The person who went on about TV was making it a point of pride “I sacraficed having cable when the kids were little,” not because of price, which I could understand, but because of the goal to deprive oneself. Much of my family is very much of the, let’s watch every little thing the kids do, at get togethers. Some of the adults used to play games and stuff at family gathers, but because my cousins had children we…can’t. I complained once and was told I had the wrong priorities. But I don’t believe in sitting and watching the kids play for hours on end and not doing anything else. Literally, we sit on couches, the kids play, the babies drool, occasionally someone brings up a topic for discussion. That is every family gathering now. Our normal lives stopped cold. Good lord that’s dull…I don’t expect that to change with my own kids. I’m sure things will change in ways that are just normal, like Alyssa said, but I rarely hear people in my life presenting an option other than this miserable, give up everything for some grand payoff later. And then they wonder why my husband and I have “put it off.”

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Hahaha. No, the whole point of playdates (for us, anyway) is for the kids to play so the adults can spend time not directly with them while they’re happily occupied.

        But it also helps that our kids are well-behaved. When kids aren’t well-behaved, you end up following your kid around making sure he doesn’t brain my sweet innocent three year old with a toolbox.

        How do you get your kids to be well-behaved? What we did was send DC1 to an excellent preschool where all the kids were well-behaved and copied what they did. (Granted, this may not work for everybody, and there are many challenges with different kids, especially those who aren’t “neurotypical”, but it worked for us.)

        Our family gatherings aren’t quite as hands-off as our playdates though because DC’s cousins are not so well-behaved. This may have inspired a recent post on authoritative vs authoritarian parenting.

    • Rosa Says:

      I found we did give up a lot, but it wasn’t what we gave up for the baby I resented – after all, I’m the one deciding not to listen to gory news when he can hear, not him, and I’m the one deciding he needs to go to bed on time and leaving the grownups at the bar to go home and make that happen.

      What I resent is the way our extended families suddenly decided they had the right to a lot more of our time and energy. It took 6 years to fight back enough to get some holidays/vacation time that didn’t involve the grandparents who have a “need” to see kiddo.

  16. hush Says:

    I also worked for pay during my first labor. I was “unnatural” enough to get an epidural and an induction, so it was no trouble to respond to emails and return client phone calls during the 15-hour stretch when I basically had to just sit there in my hospital room, pain free thankfully, waiting until it was time to push. I also slept during labor. Good thing, because I wouldn’t sleep through the night again for another 2 years (low sleep needs kids rock in other ways though).

    “We did wait to have a second child until the first was able to entertain hirself and could help us out, which helps.” Amen – great call, our experience going from 1 to 2 would have been much less chaotic if we had waited another 2-3 years between babies.

    And I’m with your grandmother – “hire good help” is pretty much my personal motto. I’m a huge proponent of hiring nannies, and paying them legally and well – but I’ve definitely been criticized as an unfit mother who “lets strangers raise her kids!!” by mothers from different class backgrounds than my own, plus those who, of course, don’t work full-time or have the career success I do, and yet send their own kids to full-time preschool, but I digress.

  17. sheddingkhawatir Says:

    As a soon to be unnatural mother, this is one reason I enjoy your blog (and some other academic ones) especially the parenting posts–it is nice to read things where my immediate reaction isn’t this person is insane!

  18. First Gen American Says:

    I actually changed jobs to one that was less insane hours wise before becoming a mom. I knew it would be impossible to be globe trotting around the world and not being home nights and weekends.

    I still struggle with wanting to do the high powered roles but not being able to take them on because of the quality of life sacrifices you have to make. I suppose having kids did change my life was a because I am not working my job 24/7 anymore. I think my life is just as crazy just with more variety of tasks.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Some of my childless colleagues are starting to notice that it isn’t (always) kids that causes the ramping down at work, but turning 30. (Though some of that is being more efficient at work as well– spending less time wasting time.)

      • Rosa Says:

        I was out to dinner with a bunch of former colleagues last night, all salespeople who get very specific numeric feedback on their performance all the time, and all people who work less than full time if they can manage.

        A surprising number have been top producers at job after job after job (unfortunately in this economy being in the top 10% at your company doesn’t create that much job stability). It’s the bargaining chip they use to keep their hours down in the face of a lot of managers preference for fulltime employees. Most people just can’t keep that intense focus up for 40 or 50 hours a week, and trying to demand peak performance all the time for that kind of period gets you a whole roomful of lackluster performers.

  19. Debbie M Says:

    I’m afraid that getting a baby sister at age 10 changed me into a person who doesn’t want kids (too hard! too scary! plus who knows who you’ll get?). This is still true even though I get along best with my sister out of all my family.

    Learning to read turned me into a person who loves life and can find information (especially with libraries and the internet around). I don’t like bothering people to get information (even calling business), and I don’t like learning the hard way (sink or swim), so learning to read was awesome.

    Being a Girl Scout taught me to cook, and doing my own cooking is really the only thing that works in keeping my weight reasonable. (My cooking has fewer calories than restaurant cooking but enough fiber and protein to still be filling. Plus sometimes I feel lazier than I feel hungry, which also reduces the intake.) Taking home ec taught me to use higher quality equipment (cheese grater instead of a knife, for example), though I still really don’t want a food processor (aren’t they a pain to clean?).

    Learning embroidery turned me into a person who is not afraid of most sewing-related things. I don’t actually sew, but I do repair things, make quilts, sew badges and patches on things, etc.

    Getting a job and getting control of my own money turned me into a person who pays attention to the values of things. (As a kid I always just assumed everything was too expensive.)

    Getting a BA in Psychology turned me into a person who can no longer read pop psychology. (They don’t explain enough for me to be able to tell whether their conclusions are crappy–or they strongly imply enough for me to not help concluding that their conclusions are crappy.)

    Going to a fancy college made me realize I love hanging around super smart people. Even if they are mostly doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, and engineers (jobs I would never want).

    Being a camp counselor showed me that I do have leadership skills. I rarely use them because usually there’s someone around who wants to be the leader and who knows more than I do. I only step in when everyone else is even more clueless than me or refuses to lead.

    Watching a couple of my amazing friends learn folk dancing only slightly more quickly than I did showed me that they became amazingly good at lots of things by spending time learning them. Now I am amazingly good (which in some cases means barely adequate–I am now barely adequate at volleyball!!!) at many things.

    Not being able to get a good job and instead getting a low-status bureaucratic job turned me into the kind of person who realizes I’d rather have low stress and fewer work hours than normal even if I have to be quite frugal to do it.

  20. Flavia Says:

    Apart from grad school and getting a tenure-track job (totally different kinds of life-changing experiences, at least for me), the biggest transformation I’ve gone through involved the end of a long-term relationship.

    I always feel dumb saying that — most relationships end, and most people have gone through it! — but it’s the first time I really grappled in profound ways with loss and failure. Grad school also destroyed and created parts of who I am, but those changes weren’t sudden. The end of that relationship (which was inter-involved with my professional identity) WAS sudden, and at the time felt catastrophic.

    Obviously, it wasn’t. But some of the changes it produced are lasting.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Men and women have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, eh?

      Yeah, any kind of long term relationship suddenly ending can be disruptive, and a romantic one tied up with your professional identity sounds pretty life-altering.

  21. Feelings at work: Commenting on Dame Eleanor Hull | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] love #2: showering isn’t “natural” also showering makes me want to sleep #1: maybe I’m an unnatural woman #2: probably best not to talk about feeling like a natural woman at work […]


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