The following was published in hipmama c. 2000, and in the essential hipmama: writing from the cutting edge of parenting, edited by Ariel Gore, Seal Press 2004.It is slightly updated here.
For the last decade I’ve hovered around the edge of a group of people who call themselves “sex radicals” or “the sex community,” people who write, think and philosophize about sex, fight censorship on many different fronts, and engage in unorthodox behavior like public or group sex. I got here, as most people do, by accident, on a journey that began when I first used my pen to write pornography for profit and fun, in that order.
While to the outside world this community is seen as hedonistic and decadent, sex radicals view what they’re doing as social justice work that will ultimately lead to a freer, more humane society. Many believe that the path to spiritual enlightenment is through sexual excess, or at least exploration. They see themselves as daring pioneers engaged in a fight whose consequences are as significant as, say, the French and the Russian Revolutions.But I don’t feel like a daring pioneer for writing about sex. For me, the scariest place to venture with my pen has always been into the territory of motherhood.
As the mother of two adult children, one of whom was born with a chronic medical condition, I’ve made sporadic attempts to write honestly about my experience for over 30 years. I got stuck in rage, I got stuck in terror–but most of all I got stuck in the writer’s hell of self-censorship. I knew that if I told the truth about what motherhood has been like for me, I would be breaking a taboo much stronger than the one against sexual expression. I would be violating a conspiracy of silence that serves to keep the human race propagating. Furthermore, if I wrote about how difficult motherhood has been for me, I would open myself to the irrational charge, frequently leveled against mothers who deviate in any way from the norm, that I don’t sufficiently love my children. If I told the truth, without couching it in good-natured jokes–that for me motherhood has been more a source of pain than pleasure–I would be seen as defective, unnatural, inhuman. Worst of all, if my children were to read what I wrote, I would, even at this late date, do them irreparable harm. I would be vulnerable to the most deadly epithet known to woman: “a bad mother.” And so, ironically, while I have signed my real name to most of my pornography, it is only under the time-honored byline of “Anonymous” that I began writing freely about motherhood.
I’m no stranger to artistic criticism. As a porn writer I’ve received my share of social censure, including being called a bad mother: after all, what kind of mother lets her kids–and in the public domain yet– know that she’s sexually active? My work has been condemned, if not specifically, then certainly in its collective genre. Mostly it’s been trivialized, laughed at, dismissed by friends and family as a good way to make a buck. Many of my colleagues in this field go ballistic over such attitudes, but I remain relatively undisturbed by them: While I think these attitudes absurd, they don’t twist my guts in the same way as attacks on mothers.
Things were pretty rough when I had my first baby 40 years ago, and though styles have changed, as far as I can tell, the behavior of mothers is still subject to greater scrutiny than that of any other class of human beings on the planet. Witness the current suggestion of criminalizing women who take drugs during pregnancy, the latest manifestation of control over women’s bodies and behavior. Nobody wants to see babies born addicted to crack–but what’s next? Sugar? Coffee? Failure to exercise sufficiently, as determined by the latest trend-setting fitness gurus? (Note: Seven years after I first wrote this, it’s been proposed in some states that pregnant women who smoke should be subject to punishment.)
Personally I have been criticized, directly or indirectly, for: doing something to cause my son’s disability; denying my son’s disability; making too much of my son’s disability; overfeeding; incorrect feeding; inattentiveness; incompetence; writing when I should have been earning money; working when I should have been home; writing about sex; not writing enough about my children; writing too much about my son and not enough about my daughter; letting my kids live with their father; taking them back; drinking and dancing around my kids; endangering them by living in the city; depriving them by living in the country; being a lax disciplinarian; being insufficiently involved in their schoolwork; interfering with their autonomy; dressing inappropriately for a mother; being open about my sexuality; letting lovers sleep over; being bisexual; having a long-term black lover and including him in family activities; speaking and writing on political issues; surrounding my kids with unusual kinds of people; subjecting them to communal living; depriving them of a normal family life; emasculating my son with feminism; compromising feminist events by bringing my son along; imparting sexist attitudes; foisting non-sexist attitudes on them; failing to give them religion; failing to inspire patriotism; favoring my son; favoring my daughter; being open about who I am; not moving on with my life when my kids were old enough; being selfish about my time when even as adults they still need me; enabling, overprotecting, neglecting, and just plain fucking up.
These criticisms came from: my mother, in-laws and other relatives; my ex-husband; friends; lovers; my women’s consciousness-raising group; my women’s theater group; employers; co-workers; doctors; teachers; social workers; therapists; bank tellers; shopkeepers; strangers in the park; and, most recently, my daughter. They also came, less directly, from television, newspapers, magazines and books. When an outside critic wasn’t on the case, I did the job myself. No wonder mothers have written so little and so superficially on the subject: whatever we say can and will be used against us in or out of a court of law.
To be fair, the reasons mothers don’t write honestly about their experience can often be perfectly benign. In Of Women Born Adrienne Rich confessed that the reason she so rarely wrote about her children was that her writing was the one place where she could escape them. And then there’s the practical matter of time: mothers simply don’t have it, and by the time the kids are grown we’re reluctant to revisit that emotional minefield.
But I think that mothers remain silent primarily out of fear. We are not supposed to feel ambivalence. We are not supposed to have negative feelings about motherhood, let alone towards the children themselves. This is changing somewhat, but my daughter’s experience as a mother in “Mommy and Me” groups tells me the taboo around expressing so-called negative feelings is alive and well. And yet, when Ann Landers asked the question “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” 70% of her respondents said no. This statistic surprised me, since I know only two other women who have ever voiced these kinda of sentiments.
Fifteen years ago I put out a call for written materials from mothers, hoping to put together an anthology. I asked mothers of grown children to reflect on their experience of raising children, emphasizing a focus on struggle. What I received were dozens of essays describing how Johnny learned to read, or the happy chaotic six-kid household. The few writers who did mention hardship made sure to conclude that “it was all worth it.”
This hypocrisy makes me feel: isolated, freakish, deprived of an allegedly joyful experience. I’ve felt like a witch, a Medea, an evil pariah. Like the Catholic who sins and then goes to confession for exoneration, I absolve my sins with self-castigation.
And just what are these sins? That I haven’t lived up to anyone’s standard of maternal perfection, certainly. But deeper still is the pain, which feels somehow sinful, of not having enjoyed what is touted as the greatest show on earth. Because I’ve been told that the experience of motherhood should be my deepest source of gratification, my dissatisfaction with it engenders profound suffering.
It should not be necessary to state this, but part of the problem is that I must: I love my children and do not wish them gone. As a matter of fact, it is precisely the love I feel for these people that makes the condition of motherhood so unbearable. That I can never do right by them, that they can never live a pain-free existence, that I unthinkingly caused some of their pain, that the world I brought them into isn’t good enough for them–all these are sources of anguish for me. I believe that most mothers–most parents–feel at least a little bit this way. Because my first child was born with a life-threatening condition, these feelings have been intensified; from the start they overshadowed the pleasure experienced by most new parents. This situation strongly affected my attitude about motherhood and my behavior toward both my children. To this day it affects my relationships with them.
When I was abruptly informed that my first baby had a condition called hydrocephalus, I had no idea what it was or what it would mean. But I instinctively knew that the world I had inhabited for nineteen years would never look the same again. And it hasn’t. But it is only now, forty years later, that I’ve worked up the courage to talk about what it looks like from my perspective.
*Note: Seven years after this was written, it’s being proposed in some quarters that pregnant women who smoke should be somehow punished.