Mother Superior

Before kids, I had ALL the opinions on parenting. Now, I vow, I will not judge you, short of actively harming your kids, because let’s face it: 1. There’s no way something we do or say at some point—hopefully not most things, or crucial things—will come to haunt us or our kids later on; and 2. I am and forever will be stumbling in the dark with my hands outstretched in this parenting business, and the most I can hope is that I am walking in front of my kids, so I can take the brunt. Because parenting—from what I’ve seen here so far—is nothing if not reinventing the wheel for your own little family. There is no tribe to learn from.

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Last night conspired to remind me of the solitude of parenting—here, in Canada, in my experience—an episode of black-ish on hiring a nanny to help with the kids, combined with reading “The Cage of You” by Kerry Howley in Granta 132, a personal essay weaving Howley’s experience of childbirth in Texas, with her book research on a group of amateur MMA fighters. I cannot tell you how many ding-ding-dings I heard when Rainbow told a reluctant Dre “your mom had auntie this and auntie that to help out” or when when Howley’s doula told her “In the past, the tribe knew. Older women in the tribe would have taught you” (72).

Let me backtrack and offer some context: this week’s episode of black-ish was about the Johnsons hiring a nanny to relieve the adults of some of the work around the house and four kids. I love how this show manages to wring humour out of racial, gender, and class inequity, and this week’s “Black Nanny” episode was the busy intersection of all three. Black-ish usually navigates these three categories of difference with a mix of hilarity and gravitas that both exposes and critiques them for a popular audience. In this episode, Dre, for example, experiences “white guilt,” a term he encounters thanks to his white boss and another colleague, who function in the show as a sort of Greek chorus: their scenes always take place in the glass-walled boardroom, with the rich, consciously bigoted, white, male owner of the advertising company at the head of the table, and his Harvard-educated (white, male) sidekick at his literal right. The board room works as a translation area, but also a trading post: Dre explains Black culture, and his colleagues interpret white privilege.

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Dre’s “white guilt” and unease with his class privilege are prompted by the Vivian-the-Nanny’s observations about his getting a new pair of shoes in the mail everyday. Rainbow also has to reframe her relationship with Vivian after visiting the latter’s nail salon, and hearing everyone gossip about her family and her house. In the end, Vivian’s manner with the Johnson kids persuades Dre and Bo to ask Vivian to remain as their nanny, under the condition that they maintain professional boundaries.

Oh, the things I wish I had known or seen before! When I was pregnant with my first, we hired a doula for the prenatal course, instead of going to a hospital one, where I had heard—horror of horrors!—they casually inserted “and then you get the epidural, and then…” as if medicalization of birth was the most natural thing. Yes, I was one of those (privileged women who had learned the statistics, bought her copy of Ina May, and managed to get into the only midwife-run clinic that had provincial funding at the time)!

Apparently, we are species! This is the type of experience that Howley describes in “The Cage of You.” She had a doula, not a midwife, and a hospital birth, where she insisted—because she is an educated writer—that they not insert a “saline lock,” an IV catheter that was hospital policy “for legal reasons.” She only emerges victorious because even in the haze of labour, she has mastery over words. She plays at their legal game, and her repeated “I do not consent!” becomes her “Open, Sesame!” In the end, her doula, aka her tribe, has to leave to take her kids to school, and Howley asks for an epidural. “Relief is sudden and total” (79), she remembers. The essay ends half a page later.

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And that, exactly that, is such a good parallel to the resources, time, and narrative space* we allot to the perinatal in our society. Yes, labour is a spectacular, if grotesque event—I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Trial” as I’m typing this, and it seems another good convergence of the showy and the scary-funny—but in the grand scheme of the statistical majority, labour is a tiny blip. What comes after—again, for most people, lucky people!—is so much more haunting, and difficult, and so very well obscured as to induce that troubling insecurity of “I don’t know, but what if I should? What if I didn’t pay attention in class, and I’ll now embarrass myself by asking a stupid question that everyone knows the answer to?”

What if you have no tribe? In Romanian, there’s a saying along the lines of “if you don’t have elders, you have to purchase some.” So, like Howley, I had to purchase knowledge. My problem was minimal: my baby wouldn’t nap. I am lucky that was it, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. It felt like a personal failure, like I hadn’t studied well enough for this test. Like I had focused so much on the birth itself—yay, midwives! Yay, birth tub! Yay, natural pain management!—that I overlooked the war. The campaigns were now measured in hours of sleep, and I was losing big time.

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So we hired the doula who had given us the prenatal classes. She was a postpartum doula, primarily, and she came every day for a week. She showed me some tricks, recommended The Happiest Baby on the Block, and offered to do work around the house for me, so I could nap. But just like Rainbow in black-ish, I couldn’t fathom anything like that. Nap? It would not do. House work? My partner would make sure the house was clean before the doula arrived.

The other side of Howley’s “The Cage of You” talks about MMA fighting. Theirs is an acceptance of embodiment that Howley has to settle to only watch from a distance in spite of her desire and attempts to occupy it:

“In the fighters I witnessed a liberating annihilation I envied. At Katherine’s [the doula], we watched women loose themselves from the ordinary world, rip through a wall impenetrable but for moments of extraordinary violence. ‘Microbiome,’ we said. ‘Vacuum extractor,’ we said, because we had no words for whatever lay beyond the lacerating spasms of agony to which we aspired. That you fear to name your need, that you ascribe your desire to maternal altruism rather than human curiosity, does not mean it is wrong to want what you want. I still think it noble, this experiential wanderlust, this drive to get to a place I in my weakness will never know.

I am saying that it was never about the baby. I am saying that it didn’t have to be.”  (79-80)

You know that thing people put on their Twitter profiles, “RTs are not endorsements”? Yes, that. I will never judge your parenting skills, and I’m always more than happy to read about them. Reading is my tribe in this and many other things.

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*There are many exceptions now, for which I am grateful: Elisa Albert’s After Birth and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work are two fantastic examples—fiction and non-fiction—of what happens with life, especially women’s/mothers’ lives after the foetus becomes human.

2 responses to “Mother Superior

  • I loved After Birth so much. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read, I think. Though I don’t think anyone should read it until years after birthing. Distance is necessary to fully appreciate what Albert is doing, and I do think it would drive a new mother mad(der).

    • Margrit
      1 year ago

      You’re completely right, Kerry! I would probably have either pulled my hair out or dismissed it as the ramblings of a self-centred narcissist. Reading it from the vantage point of retrospect, I was able to appreciate her profound analysis–so deceptively simply presented–as well as the portrayal of the hate-hate relationship between academia and procreation.

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