If I’ve learned anything during my transition from mom-plus-2 to mom-with-a-double-fistfull it’s this: the culture at large does not understand you, or your predicament.
You know, the one you got yourself into when you got yourself knocked up so far outside the status quo that strangers at playgrounds goggle their eyes at you and actually stutter the number “4” because it’s so shocking.
And it is, by the way, fairly shocking.
The average family size in the United States of America in 2013 (the most recent year I could find reliable statistics for) was 1.9, a number that has held steady for at least half a decade. Which means by the time you get your “one boy, one girl” matched set lined up, you’re already technically outpacing the national norm.
So when you roll into Costco with a trio of small people riding dirty in the double cart and then have the audacity to cut a maternal profile should you be foolish enough to leave your winter coat unzipped over the burgeoning baby bump below…you’re gonna get some arched eyebrows in your general direction.
I’m grateful to be on the receiving end of mostly positive feedback when I’ve got my small-but-multiplying crew out in public, but make no mistake, it’s not an “atta girl, good for you” warm fuzziness that usually greets us, but generally more of an incredulous “better you than me,” or “you will overcome, mom” vibe.
But God help me if the day is going downhill, or if anyone has a public display of insurrection.
If there’s one thing a culture which is fundamentally opposed to (or even merely apathetic to the existence of) the child is notable for, it is in not knowing in the least how to react to one when encountered in its native habitat of, say, the peanut butter aisle at King Soopers.
Nervous laughter, averted eyes, or, if we’re especially unlucky, pursed lips and disapproving scowls.
And sometimes the only thing harder than being a mom to a bunch of little kids is the way the general public reacts to them – to you – when you muster the audacity to take them out of the house.
Listen, I’m not looking for some kind of medal of recognition when I hit up the grocery store at 4 pm with my wild posse, but for the love of all the generic Oreos on the shelf, don’t stare at us like we’re the 8th world wonder because we’re there.
You might be the first adult I’ve laid eyes on since 7 am, and I’d love if I didn’t have to pretend everything was fine fine FIIIIIINE with an unnatural glint in my eyes and a slightly manic smile fixed on my face, because otherwise you might think that I’m not enjoying myself and this little child army of mine.
God forbid you think that.
God forbid I’m allowed to demonstrate, in public, how hard this is, because after all, didn’t I literally and figuratively make my bed and lie in it, and then repeat the feat 2 or 3 or 4 more times after that?
Yes, I know what causes this. I know where babies come from. I do have a tv, but it’s in the basement and we generally prefer Netflix, but that’s beside the point.
I’m raising children in a culture that despises them, for all intents and purposes, both in word and in deed, and indeed, by the very laws of the land itself. And it kind of feels like it despises me, too, most of the time.
Motherhood is already hard as hell, because, yes, diapers and bedtime chaos and ear infections and the crushing isolation of a post industrial society bound up by fiberoptic cables, but fractured of any physical community…but the difficulty is greatly magnified by the public disdain for and incomprehension of our children’s – and to some extent, our own – existence.
So what does this mean? Well, lots of the time it means I’ve got to be the brave little soldier mother, the one bucking the trend and smiling and saying “yes” over and over, not because I’m oppressed or brainwashed or lacking in education or opportunity, but because I chose this of my own free will. And for that, I have forfeited the right to complain, at least outside the 4 walls of my home or my safe little corner of cyberspace.
I have abdicated the right to expect a sympathetic ear or an understanding spirit from a total stranger, or even my next door neighbor, because we’re swimming upstream in this household and most of the other salmon we’re commuting with are not only staring at us in blind incomprehension, but sometimes they’re throwing their slippery bodies in our way. Because we might be idiots. And we’re clearly not operating out of our right minds.
And some days it’s harder than others.
Sometimes I want to not have to pretend that everything is fine while we’re out and about only to come home and collapse in a sobbing mess behind the bathroom door once the groceries are put away and the snacks are dolled out.
I want to share with the other moms I encounter that it is hard, that I’m not doing it all, and that even though there are more days than not where I feel like crying by 8 pm, I wouldn’t have chosen another life than this one. Can’t it be hard but also worth it?
Can’t I confide in some well-intentioned stranger that it is a struggle to be this busy and pregnant again, but that some hard things are worth doing, and that pursuing a life of self-actualiztaion and leisure isn’t the only thing we were put on this earth for?
Can I be unafraid of coming across as a stereotype of the tired, overwrought, and oppressed mother who hasn’t yet happened upon the wonders of birth control and daycare if I let the smile slip from my face and I make honest eye contact with you while my 4 year old is lying on his back sobbing in the library because his favorite dinosaur book was checked out by somebody else, and his two other siblings are ready to leave now, and we can’t spend 20 minutes hunting for an acceptable substitute?
I wonder how much of the hardness of my hardest days is because it is hard right now, and really lonely, too, and I feel compelled to put on a brave face and pretend that it isn’t hard, out of fear that someone judge me accurately to be the sobbing, overworked mess of a mother that I really am.
Motherhood is always hard, and it always has been. But motherhood in a culture that shies away from self-immolation and self-denial and radical generosity in grotesque horror is especially challenging. And sure, I’m doing my little part to buck that trend, bit by bit, baby by baby. But it isn’t easy.
I remind myself over and over again of Pope Benedict’s words (but not often enough, obviously) “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”
But God help me if I don’t crave comfort, just the same. I just wish I could talk about it honestly sometimes without getting counseled on the latest, greatest advancement in IUD technology.
I didn’t say I wanted to exterminate the little darlings, just that raising them is hard, and doing so in a culture that sees them primarily in terms of risk and cost is exhausting. Because I feel compelled more often than not to play along like everything is rosy, lest I be adding fuel to the anti-child fire.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, I am myself exhausted by the effort to make this look good, make this look enjoyable and attractive and worth it.
It is all those things, and more. So much more. But I’m so tired. And sometimes I just don’t have it in me to pretend otherwise, even when I know people are watching.