The Bondage of Vulnerability

So, for the most part, I insulate myself in this bubble of supremely supportive folks who never judge me or my kid and life works out pretty well that way. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can’t tolerate judgement when it comes to my kid or my parenting and I don’t mean that in a “I won’t stand for it!” kinda way but more like it makes me said, want to cry and/or spit with fury, and fold in on myself kinda way. It scares me to be honest because it is such an open wound, such a vulnerability, that I just wanna wrap everybody up in bubble wrap and take a nice, long nap.

A friend and I were taking about the vulnerability associated with parenting and the fact that it is such a harsh reality for mothers in particular. There’s that saying about how having a child is like having your heart outside your body and my experience is more like, having a child is like having live brainwires sticking out of your skull and having people flick them for fun sometimes. The outcome is the same for both analogues: It’s painful to have this living being making your more open and vulnerable and exposed than ever before. How does one get used to this, this...EXPOSURE?

Like all things in life, we can develop a hard shell that seemingly protects us from the outside world but only serves to make us more fearful and small. We get claustrophobic trying to insulate ourselves from all of the unknowns and uncouths of the world because we let our worlds get smaller and the judgments we make on ourselves and others that begin to control our every thought and movement. OR, thankfully there is an “or” here, we can open our hearts wide and learn to sit with what it feels like to have all our precious bit poked and prodded and then see ourselves bleed out until we no longer faint at the sight.  

The latter way of going about life, opened versus closed, has been a real saviour for me because it helps me to take chances and be my authentic self. It’s risky and scary and sometimes messy but it is its own kind of solace to know that I can depend on the openness of my heart to help me make what I think are the right decisions because those decisions aren’t based on fear and loathing – of myself or others. This general approach to life does make things a bit less scary but perhaps no less harrowing when you find yourself in difficult circumstances. And it just so happens that difficult circumstances are what you often face with a kid in your life.

The kid themselves is often not the problem – at least for me, thankfully – but rather, all the circumstances surrounding the kid. All the minutiae of choice-making and navigating the expectations of others which sometimes seem so outlandish. I’ve talked before about how no one remembers what having a two year-old is like but then remembers to give unsolicited advice – or more often – unsolicited judgments – about how you should go about raising them. I’ve also talked about how sensitive I am and how this does help when negotiating my own choices and the omnipresent fear that everyone, and their out-dated opinions/expectations, might be RIGHT.

So this brings me back to vulnerability and a new theory that I am working on that has to do with the specific gendering of vulnerability in parenting that affects mothers in particularly insidious ways. Women, in general, find themselves in judged in myriad ways and by some of the closest people to them in their lives. I always marvel at how, when I hear women talking passionately to one another in raised voices in public, it is ALWAYS about what so-and-so said that set them off the other night at the party/work/home/the playground – wherever. We are always talking about each other. We are the drama of each other’s lives. Motherhood puts a fine point on that judgment. Suddenly there is this little creature and how so-and-so interacts with that child and all the minute choices that she makes surrounding that little human that is so much fodder for judgment. Having children exposes the gendered relational aggression that women so often inflict on each other to the light of day. It makes it normal and natural so judge Susan because she didn’t breastfeed but she could have dontchaknow, and did you know that Linda co-slept with her baby despite all the recommendations, and Faye gives her kids timeouts and this other one doesn’t. It’s exhausting and it isn’t fantasy. It is the burden of the contemporary mother. It is her cross to bear to be judged.

Now it might seem like I am blaming women here, and maybe I am a little. But my theory extends far beyond the petty squabbles in the park. Those are only a symptom of the devaluation of women in general which leads to their necessary policing and degradation in the minutest details of their lives. If women can be preoccupied with, wracked with guilt about, consumed with fear and loathing for themselves and others like them, then who has got time – or energy – to stand up and call bullshit. Nobody, that’s who. Contemporary motherhood as it is constructed in narratives from the selfless to selfish mother and everything in between, turns out to be a bit of trap for women. Women find themselves so raw and exposed from all the un-talked about aspects of their experience that they are just supposed to move on from and act like everything is normal, that they find it difficult to find the strength to rail against the impossible standards and constant judgment that leave them feeling so vulnerable. Where is the support for this tender rite of passage? Where is the sensitivity after the shower games and gender reveal parties and smug rubs to the belly? While this may not be a huge coordinated conspiracy on the part of everyone you know, “society,” or the patriarchy, I do think there is something to say about how the mundane patterns of everyday life keep women from questioning their circumstances and fighting against what they know is unjust. It becomes “just the way it is” to be a woman, a mother.

I am reminded of Canadian feminist Dorothy Smith’s work The Everyday World as Problematic. Here is a brief summary of her work:

In her book The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (1989), Smith argued that sociology has ignored and objectified women, making them the “Other.” She claimed that women’s experiences are fertile grounds for feminist knowledge and that by grounding sociological work on women’s everyday experiences, sociologists can ask new questions. For instance, Smith posited that because women have historically been the caregivers of society, men have been able to dedicate their energy to thinking about abstract concepts that are viewed as more valuable and important. Women’s activities are thus made invisible and seen as “natural,” rather than as part of human culture and history. If sociologists start from a female perspective, they can ask concrete questions about why women have been assigned to such activities and what the consequences are for social institutions such as education, the family, government, and the economy. (Further info can be found here).

I feel like questions about what women’s lives are like in contemporary society are seen as too boring, mundane, to “everyday” and “natural” so deserve the kind of critical interrogation that is necessary for women as mothers to be freed from the bondage of vulnerability that is motherhood. I sure thought so before I was a mother. But if the experience of motherhood changes you, it is for the better and for the worse and it needs to be communicated – the experience of motherhood – in a way that makes it easier to exist as a mother without having to put up with all the ways we are put upon as mothers.

We need to shake motherhood up for the sake of all of those mothers who want to escape the bondage of vulnerability and who want to author their own stories of perseverance, pain, and promise.

Here’s to today’s mothers who are neither boring or mundane and who will write new narratives of triumph over those who would dare and try to keep them in their "place."