Mothers often say that they stay silent about what mothering is really like for them, because people wouldn’t understand. There is a lot of truth in this. The intensity of mothering can boggle the body, mind and spirit of the toughest of new mothers. For example, I thought that because I used to cycle hundreds of miles every year, I knew something about persisting through pain and fatigue. I did know something about it, but only a fraction of what I know now. I had no idea of the intensity of pain and fatigue involved in childbirth and mothering. (I’m still waiting for the mothering endorphins to kick in! The glimpses I’ve had, have made me hungry for more.)
The key difference is that with cycling, one has a choice whether to continue or to quit. With mothering, the choice to continue doesn’t feel like much of a choice. The alternative – to stop mothering our children by leaving or giving them away – violates some of our strongest cultural taboos. It takes FAR greater strength and courage for the average beleaguered mother to quit, than to keep slogging on. Of course, biology comes into it too: we are hardwired to do whatever it takes to keep those little beings alive and as well as we can make them. (I take my hat off to women who choose to stop day-to-day mothering, for whatever reason. It’s a very brave decision.)
Perhaps some of us stay silent because, given that we’re not going to quit mothering, we don’t feel entitled to complain. Some of us stay silent because we don’t want to be ‘downers.’
Mothering is not the only human experience that suffers (and I do mean suffers) from a conspiracy of silence. Other groups who keep some degree of silence around their experiences include combat soldiers, police officers, ambulance and hospital emergency-room workers, rape survivors, rapists, abuse survivors, abusers, disabled people, people of non-dominant races and religions and many more groups. I suspect that much of this silence derives from the belief that people wouldn’t understand, that to the extent they have chosen their circumstances they have no right to complain, and/or that they don’t want to be ‘downers.’ Disabled people and people of non-dominant races and religions may not have the tools (language, education, platform) to attempt to explain their experiences.
What does it say about us as a culture that we are collectively incapable of truly listening to the intense experiences of our fellow humans?
What we know is that traumatic experiences, which is what I’m talking about here when I talk about combat soldiers, rape survivors, etc., have specific predictable effects on human biology and psychology. Traumatic experiences generate stress hormones and require our psyches to make radical adjustments to accommodate horrific new experiences. We also know that dealing with these effects in a healthy way very often involves sharing the experiences with others.
Without wanting to get too dramatic, I would say that for some of us, mothering is traumatic. It generates stress hormones and challenges our psyches on some very deep levels. The degree to which this occurs varies dramatically. Some mothers thrive on it. Others just get on with things. Yet others struggle more to integrate the mothering experience. Some simply don’t cope. It strikes me that the more we talk about our experiences, the more we normalise them and the more easily we can integrate them.
When I first started telling more of my mothering truth, my words came out very charged. I compare myself to the members of various disempowered groups whose attempts to communicate their experience can come across as hysterical, overstated, overdramatic. (I’ll never forget my father asserting, seriously, circa 1990, that there was no more sexism in the workplace. You can bet that after the stunned silence, the hysteria level at that dinner table increased dramatically!) Similarly, during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, African-Americans had to make a whole lot of noise to get even part of their reality recognised by the dominant culture.
This post is beginning to diverge into a whole socio-cultural critique, which is a little beyond the scope of a single blog post. I guess my point is, mothers’ silence is like the silence of other disempowered groups. Which means I’m arguing that mothers are a disempowered group. And one of the ways out of disempowerment is to share our experiences with each other and with the dominant culture.
We can start small, by trusting our own experiences and sharing them with safe friends and family. Eventually, however, if we want life to be better for us, our children, and ultimately society as a whole, we have to speak up and tell the truth – the good, the bad and the ugly.