I watched the film “The Lost Daughter”. Olivia Coleman, a middle-aged woman, is vacationing alone in Greece. She becomes consumed with the dramatic narrative of a fellow beach goer, a young mother and her daughter. Coleman is thrown back to her own youth when she struggled to parent small children and maintain a separate self as a graduate student. She later confessed to this other woman, “I’m an unnatural mother” in response to her admission that she left her children for two years to pursue an affair.
This scene choked me up. Theatrical reviews aside, much of the movie was uncomfortable to watch. The flashbacks to the younger self with her palpable resentment towards her children as she struggled to complete a phone call held a lens towards some of my own battles. But I never left my children. I’ve always been right here for them. Was that my biggest mistake, that I didn’t center more energy on myself and instead put too much focus on raising children?
I also feel that I need to be someone separate from the children. I crave the confidence that comes from being acknowledged as being successful in one’s work. That is something that is not acknowledged or clearly defined when one’s job is full-time parenting.
I suffer the dueling desires of “selfish first person” Cynthia and “selfless mother” Cynthia. I have constructed these identities. No one told me to leave my career at the museum, to abandon my own graduate work and become a full-time parent. I made those choices. I wanted to be home with my babies and create a sparkling childhood utopia complete with a curated board book collection and a membership to the kiddie science museum. I thought “I” could exist alongside this mother-self.
When my first baby was 6 months old, I tried to return to academia, but my suburban homestead didn’t make it convenient to get into the city. In those early years, I thought I was still two people. But ultimately, motherhood subsumed my other self. I didn’t publish my research. I was no longer a career woman. I sold my suits! I had more children. I occasionally wrote “bloggy” essays about mothering.
Many women, probably most women in America, work outside of the home. They are somehow mothers and have another job because they need money to keep the lights on or they need to satisfy an inner drive.
My situation is a little different. When I realized that my children are autistic my priorities took a sharp turn. There was suddenly another language to learn and whole worlds of therapies and medical issues to navigate. I really do have a full-time job managing their education, physical and emotional needs. But other special needs parents do this and also work another job.
Do I sometimes wish that I could trade places with someone who had gone back to work after she had her babies? Sometimes I do.
Does that make me an unnatural mother?
“An unnatural mother” is a filthy epithet in our culture. It’s right up there with “unfit”. That’s the judgment I feel against myself. I should intuitively know and love all aspects of being a mother or there is something wrong with me.
My youngest is 6 years old and it is starting to feel less clear what motherhood means. The feeding and swaddling and shushing away tears has been replaced by the more grueling discipline and negotiation of parenting young people who’ve developed their own minds and wants. My parenting success has actually made me redundant in all the ways that mattered most to me.
I think I’m starting to feel like more of an unnatural mother the older they get and the less they need me. Now I’m that woman who’s knocking around the house while they interact with each other. I’m the food lady and the washer of clothes. The younger ones still believe I’m interesting but the eldest has slipped into his teens and I’ve become annoying.
Why was the most challenging time, the time of tears and tantruming, when I was exhausted and frustrated and lost, that I felt the most certain of myself in that role of motherhood?
Now I wonder if it’s too late to have made someone of myself. It’s so contradictory, I know. But maybe I would be a better mother if I felt that I could say that I had done something in my life other than being a mother.
What else am I? I am a frustrated writer. For me, there is intoxication in a well sculpted essay. But I’ve barely kept my toes wet over the past decades. It’s a far cry from having written the novel I had always planned to. I hope that will still happen someday. Instead, my writing has been sculpted by my life as a mother. I am finding out what it means to parent older children on the spectrum. Being an advocate for their special needs has actually developed rather organically from being a naturally indignant person. Now I’m trying to use my voice for many children instead of just my own. I want my writing to reach other mothers and encourage them to raise their voices. I hope that it does.
Have I talked myself into believing that I’m a natural mother? I could argue that life would feel easier if I were “a natural”. But much of what is natural is hard and destructive: ocean waves and meteors have the brute impact similar to years of parenting autistic children. It feels like the Universe has put me roughly where I needed to be and that is my best understanding of being a natural at anything.
Whether by choice or by nature, I have become the right kind of mother.