When my daughter learned to walk, she began to shadow me around our apartment. She would follow me into the bathroom while I showered, taking an interest in my naked body. And she would accompany me into the bedroom as I got dressed, seemingly curious about my baggy underwear.
This all took place during the fall of the 2016 election. As I watched her observe my transformed body with kind, questioning eyes, memories of men who had scrutinized me in the past flooded my mind. Some had done so approvingly, while others had done so disapprovingly. These memories resurfaced as I witnessed the changes in my daughter and her innocent curiosity.
Motherhood proved to be triggering for me. A mother’s body undergoes a gradual transformation over time. From the moment we are born, societal ideologies about womanhood mold us. These ideologies continue to pile up throughout childhood, ultimately calcifying through the stories we inherit about what it means to be a good mother.
In my own early years, I had toys that taught me about motherhood. I would care for baby dolls with yarn hair, tucking them into play cribs with tattered washcloths as makeshift blankets. From a young age, I learned that I was supposed to provide sleep and nourishment.
As I entered adolescence, boys taught me more forceful lessons about my body and its uses. They taught me how to please them, silencing my own voice in the process. I became confused about my own desires, unsure of what I wanted and how to express it. I started believing that discomfort and pain were integral parts of being desired, having sex, and becoming a woman. It became clear to me that my body belonged not just to myself, but to others as well – a tapestry to be admired or reviled, a vessel for reproduction.
A year after my daughter began walking, the #MeToo movement emerged. Testimonies from women who had experienced harassment, violation, and assault by men flooded into my home through TV news and the internet. Pregnant again and alone in my apartment, I watched from a distance, trying to connect the public conversation to my own experiences as a girl and young woman.
During this time, I revisited memories of my early sexual encounters, nights that had left me feeling ashamed and used. But now, I saw them in a new light. The wounds of motherhood had also been inflicted upon me – I felt an overwhelming sense of lack, self-denial, shame, and self-effacement. Alongside these emotional burdens, I also faced practical challenges, such as financial and social losses. Each day required me to police my speech, body language, emotions, and decisions.
I had given up on my once-promising academic career and taken a job at a home daycare to make ends meet. This arrangement allowed me to earn a small income while avoiding the high cost of childcare. My days were spent engaging with three-year-olds and frequently starving myself to shed the persistent baby weight, all while adhering to a strict schedule. Suppressing my own needs and desires became a survival strategy.
Unfortunately, this pattern seemed to be the measure of maternal success. The demands of modern motherhood, coupled with societal expectations, had created an exponential level of anxiety for mothers. The broken childcare industry only exacerbated these pressures. Online motherhood content and parenting books reinforced the belief that mothers should prioritize their children’s needs above all else and embody the ideals of devoted parenthood. Women were expected to sacrifice their professional, personal, and physical autonomy for the sake of being mothers. And so, I had.
When I returned home after a long day at the daycare, I allowed my daughter to have her way with me. Exhausted from sleepless nights, I would lie on the floor in her room and let her pat me to sleep. She would tuck me in with a thin muslin baby blanket, bring over her stuffed animals one by one, stroke my back, and shush me to sleep. After commanding me to protest while she turned off the lights, she would leave the room, leaving me half-awake and compliant. She would then demand books on our laps, rides around the apartment, and more breastfeeding.
To cope with these demands, I called upon dissociation techniques I had learned in my twenties. I would focus on the corners of the room while men used me for their pleasure, listening to their heavy breathing, calculating how much longer, moaning to expedite their satisfaction. I had long detached myself from my body – this was nothing new.
“As women, most of our sexual encounters are spent in calculations,” writes feminist theorist Silvia Federici, co-founder of the Wages for Housework movement. “We sigh, sob, gasp, pant, jump up and down in bed, but in the meantime, our mind keeps calculating ‘how much’: how much can we give of ourselves before we lose or undersell ourselves, how much will we get in return.”
Motherhood was filled with a similar agonizing sense of calculation – waiting, pushing my body to its limits, counting down minutes, and repeatedly doing things I didn’t want to do. I tried to make myself into an accommodating and agreeable object, but I couldn’t deny the feeling of smallness that accompanied the societal expectations of motherhood. The physical demands of caring for children, coupled with isolation and alienation from friends and colleagues, intensified these struggles. Despite our efforts, my husband and I fell into a traditional division of labor at home.
Marguerite Duras said that in motherhood, a woman gives her body over to her child. The child devours her, hits her, sleeps on her – they completely consume her. While my child’s touch initially felt invited, as I lost control over my life, each request and tug began to feel like a violation. Duras posits that this devouring experience doesn’t happen with fathers.
I didn’t want to be devoured, and I did my best to resist it. I can’t say that I willingly let it happen.
Due to the demands of breastfeeding, lack of extended paid leave and affordable childcare, and other financial obligations, I became the primary caregiver. The gendered division of labor in my home became more visible over time, causing me to blame myself for the loss of agency I felt. I thought that I hadn’t managed my career, relationship, or parenting correctly. Perhaps I hadn’t bottle-fed enough, timed parenting perfectly, or followed the right advice. I felt like I had brought this upon myself.
But slowly, I came to realize that the lack of autonomy I experienced as a mother was linked to the broader violence against women in the US. I had initially interpreted this loss of agency through the lens of personal failure. However, over time, I started to understand that the expectations placed upon mothers only reinforced everything I had been conditioned to believe about myself since I was…
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