Many years ago, probably around 2005, when I was about 36 years old, long before my partner and I ever decided to try getting pregnant, I spent many months sitting with my newly discovered desire to be a mother. For 15 years of relationship with my husband, I’d thought I didn’t want any children. We’d told people out loud we weren’t going to have any children. As a couple, we’d built our lives in a way that only included periodically taking care of other people’s children. But then, through a bit of personal growth work, I found out, deep in my gut, I actually wanted a child. I wanted to be a mother. I’m a pretty hardcore feminist who’d always disliked people brushing off emotional outbursts as “that time of the month” and yet, suddenly, I believed there’s such as thing as a “biological clock.” I told my husband my wanting to be a mother, and he had to sit with this new idea for a while, too.
So, there I was one day, in the rainy autumn months, walking through a cavernous local bookstore, noticing this aching feeling throughout my whole body, a feeling which both baffled and pleased me in its mystery – like how I’d spontaneously start to cry at the slightest song about parenting, or how I’d uncharacteristically stare at a newborn child snuggled onto its parents chest. And there on the shelf, perhaps on the sale rack, was this book, Maternal Desire by Daphne de Marneffe, published in 2004. I bought the book without hesitation, hardly looking at anything more than the author photograph on the inside cover. I drove home and promptly stacked the book on a shelf. It was one of those books, you know, that you want to read and will get to someday.
Fast forward a few more years: past a decision to have a child with my husband, a wonderful pregnancy, a difficult birth experience, and a now 11-month old, fabulously independent, talkative, active and often screaming child crawling at light speed around our house. I was fully immersed in motherhood – trying to balance sleep deprivation, breastfeeding, bodily recovery, and caring for my demanding, intense and alive child. But, I also had another job. I was a teacher.
Because I taught at a community college for adjunct pay with no benefits, I’d managed only to take the whole fall term off to have my baby. Eight weeks after my child was born, I went back to work, preparing syllabi, lectures, and lesson plans. Granted, I went back to work to teach online, and so I had full flexibility and control over my schedule. And after the difficulty of the birth experience and crying about it for two months, I was actually glad for the distraction of work. I managed to read papers, write assignments, post discussion boards and pass out grades all during the time my child was napping or sleeping for the night. I did this for three more terms, even working through the summer, and being pretty happy about it since I did all that work from my home and still had lots of time with my baby.
But the following fall term, the college needed me not just for the online classes, but in person for one particular class, which meant I’d have to go to school at least twice a week. With a sense of duty to my family’s income, and in an attempt to stay my flagging writing career while pretending to maintain a semblance of my former self (a self I call the “English major”), I agreed.
To care for my child while I was gone, I relied on my mother (who had to travel across the country to come for a month), a new babysitter, several friends, and the vagaries of my husband’s work schedule to pull off teaching this in-person class. But no matter whom she stayed with, (she liked the new babysitter best), my daughter screamed bloody murder when I left. And though I got better at simply leaving rather than trying to make her feel better, I hated going. I hated hearing her scream. And then, when I got to class, I hated my students.
I know these admissions are horrible. I know hate is a serious word. However, for that fall term, compared to all of my ten-year-plus career as a teacher, I was the worst at teaching I’d ever been. I acted tired, slow, scattered, annoyed, and impatient. I was unhappy. It showed. And all of my surliness was because I didn’t actually want to be entertaining and instructing those students; I wanted to be home, entertaining and instructing my own child. I didn’t care if my child was “too-attached” to me. I didn’t care that “I should really get away.” I didn’t care to compare the relative ease of my measly 6-8 hours away for work to other mothers who had to work away from the home for 40 hours a week. I just wanted to be with to my child.
After only one week of class, my mother’s back went out and she was laid up in our home, friends disappeared after my daughter screamed to far too long during their one attempt, and the favored babysitter, who was in school herself, had limited time to care for our child and usually only came one of the two days. And then, by 14 months, our child started walking and gave up napping twice a day (plus she still didn’t sleep all night), so my ability to get work done at home became even more challenging. All that winter term, trying to figure out childcare for when I was actually in class, and/or trying to keep my screaming, toddling child out of my office so I could grade papers and do online work stressed me out so bad, I found myself screaming, usually at my husband. Enter, Maternal Desire.
In my very limited time to read my own books, usually a page or two before I passed out on my pillow, I slowly but surely read this heady, feminist, analytical treatise. The book was about not simply wanting a child as I originally assumed it was. The book explores wanting to mother that child. At every turn of the page, in her analysis of motherhood as a self-actualizing practice rather than the lower-status drudgery it’s often made out to be, I related to de Marneffe’s assertion that women’s desires to care for their children is an important longing that needs to be at the forefront of our cultural consciousness rather than on the back burner. I appreciated de Marneffe’s observation that while, historically, women’s lives and longings have been ignored and undermined (can you say “penis envy?”), in the case of motherhood, even feminists have done little to reframe women’s desire to care for their children as a radical, political, equalizing act.
Just like realizing I desired to have a child took many years to gestate, my longing to care for my child full-time took a while for me to articulate. But, after “going back to work” for over a year, and especially after going back to work in person, that work – as a writer, a writing teacher, and English major poser – while all important, weren’t as important as how much I wanted to stay at home with my young child, already not a baby anymore, but a toddler. Time moved so fast, her babyhood was practically over with only a few sleep-deprived memories and photos to prove it ever existed. And since I believed (and still believe) she would be my only child, I felt quite strongly this was my only chance to have the kind of precious time together I wanted. The kind where I didn’t have to hear her scream when I left. And actually, by late that winter, she finally did stop screaming when I left for work (which included me having to pack up my laptop to go grade papers away from the home) – she waved and said, “bye Mama,” and that fact made leaving her in someone else’s care, even her own father’s, all the worse for me and my desire to mother her.
With my husband, I discussed all my jumbled emotions and we compared how much I got paid at work to the reality of how much child care we needed for me to do my job well. The finance didn’t pan out. The stress wasn’t worth my working. We decided to tell the college I wasn’t coming back. Instantly, the pressure of constant papers and discussion boards and questions about assignments slipped away. I felt tremendous relief and gratitude. My husband, too, felt relief that I would stop being surly with him.
Now, about nine months into being a stay at home mom, with my writing career quiet as a windless day, my position at the college firmly replaced by another teacher, possibly permanently, I look around my house – the dishes in the sink from last night, broken crayons scattered on the living room floor, the potty chair askew in the bathroom – and I wonder about my decision to attend to my maternal desire. Some days, I think I’ll lose my mind if my toddler screams “no Mama!” one more time or if I have watch her struggle, cry and scream in frustration for one more minute while getting dressed by herself because she positively refuses help, even though her head is stuck in the arm hole. Other days, when we are sick of each other and I’m sure I’m the worse mama in the world because I let her eyes glaze over in front of Dora the Explorer, screaming “backpack” and “map” “louder” at the TV so I can just do the damn dishes or make dinner, I think I’m not cut out to by a stay at home mom. Some days I kind of wish I had a job I had to go just to have a break. And most days I wish I had much more of a writing career, or at least my own computer since I had to give back the one the college used to loan me.
Much of my internal wars have to do with the problematic belief that self-worth equals monetary contribution, a belief that is both wholly anti-feminist and entirely culturally-fabricated. Maternal Desire as a book suggests that this belief about money and worth, and women and men buying into that belief, contributes to many societal dysfunctions. Maternal Desire doesn’t tell any one mother to stay at home or go to work – de Marneffe simply points out that suppression and ignorance of our desire to care for our children is both form and function of Western society’s structure.
I know in my heart being home with my daughter is work of immeasurable worth and that it does, in fact, financially contribute to our family. I also know I’m completely privileged to even have the time to debate myself (much less blog) about the decision to be a stay at home mom. I never heard much controversy or fuss when Maternal Desire came out, and having read the book, it was no surprise I found it on the sale rack – because to fully pay attention to our maternal desire would mean some serious paradigm shifting about real equality among the sexes. And who has time to think about all that when we either have to get ready for work or attend first thing to the needs of our child? Still, if you have just a spare moment, you might want to check out the book.