Recently, Tracy Moore wrote an amusing article for Jezebel called "How to Bitch About Having a Kid (Without Seeming Like a Total Dick)" and in it she argued that complaining about your child was both a normal part of being human and yet something that required the observation of fairly precise limits. She offered advice on exactly how much you may complain and to whom you can do so. As funny and self-deprecating as her article was, Moore still managed to alarm and offend people, which goes to show that this is a tricky topic.
Why is complaining about your children such a taboo? And why are most of us doing it anyway? Moore focused on the risk of wearing out your welcome with your complaints but the greater risk, one she only mentioned in passing, is that you will be seen as a terrible mother for complaining at all.
When mothers do complain about their children, particularly in public, they often pull punches in a 'cereal all over the floor, those loveable rascals' kind of way. Motherhood is so tightly scripted that even when someone appears to ad-lib they are very often reading rehearsed lines. Complaining about my children feels a lot like complaining about my job. The tantrums, the squabbling, the whining and the interruptions - these are the monotonous meetings, the jammed printers and the difficult bosses I may complain about to colleagues over drinks. But that's not necessarily how the complaints will be received. The line between your story, as a mother, and your children's is thin. Who owns this tale of woe and its right to be told? Unloading is liberating but troubling for a parent, all at once. Mothering is a role that will dominate my life for at least twenty years and there is plenty to say about that preoccupation but it is almost impossible to write about without treading on the privacy and powerlessness of my children.
There is much at stake for me, also, in complaining. The myth of motherhood is that the loving, the giving, and the nurturing is innate and unconflicted. Mothering is supposedly the core of my gender. The caring tasks I perform are expected of me, unlike those done by my partner, which are often seen as evidence of particularly exemplary traits in him. The reason you are not to complain too loudly about mothering is because it calls into question your very femininity. To fail at this role is not to highlight the complexity of mothering work or the precariousness of my status, but rather, it is to hint at a moral failure on my part.
Even so, I know the reality of motherhood is that it is full of ambivalence. The process of having a baby is the cleaving of yourself in two. There is you, the person you know and have always been, and then there is you, somebody's mother. In the early months this felt like I had unravelled and that my heart was collapsing, liquefying and slipping through my grip. Nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming tenderness of mothering, nor its ferocity. To love someone so deeply when they are as fragile as a baby feels as though you are being utterly careless with your heart. And to love someone that demanding is a journey through the darkest parts of your soul. How patient are you? What is your endurance for exhaustion, loneliness, deprivation, and uncertainty? Whatever your capacity, even more will be required of you.
I was at my most vulnerable when it was just my daughter and I together, through the long, slow hours of the day or the maddening hours in the middle of the night. Through the years since I have reconstructed myself, but my daughter will know me in a way nobody else does. She saw me bare. By the time I had her brother, four years later, I was the mother I had always wanted to be - relaxed and competent. If that ambivalence as a first-time mother, and that intensity in your relationship with them, does not bring out a kind of confused anger in you at times then you are either a much saner person than I or much less. The complaining starts from the very beginning as a parent - why won't this baby sleep? - and you may either speak it aloud and hope to find release or keep it buried inside and nurture a frightening resentment.
I am pretty certain that mothering is not supposed to be this difficult - that you are not supposed to feel quite as 'on the edge' as you so often do. But mothers are isolated by suburbia and nuclear families. They are silenced, too, by the Hallmark card-like mythology of it all. Children are designed to love and be loved, it is how they survive; but much of that survival manifests as continuous crying and incessant demands. From moment to moment, as a parent, I experience a competition of needs - mine for rest; my children's for tending; mine for solitude; my children's for attention. But tucked up in our suburban homes with partners at work we reach the end of our tether in a state of claustrophobia. I can end days like that weak from suppressed fury. I feel the explosion bubbling millimetres beneath my surface while simultaneously being fiercely protective of my children.
The mythology of motherhood, which grossly over-simplifies the experience, ignores the internal conflicts but also somehow fails to capture the exhilarating joyousness of the experience. The love you feel for your children can leave you equally defenceless, such is it size and capacity to swallow you whole. The languid moments cuddling, the sense of ease and adventure together when we are holidaying, and the pure physical beauty of their small limbs and soft skin.
By sharing private and difficult moments as mothers we create a more complete picture of the reality of motherhood - it ultimately frees us all. The ugly complaints, if told wisely, can in a way be witness to the stamina of this extraordinary relationship. But the fear in us in disclosing is palpable - that we might be frauds and that our secret moments exclude us from being good mothers. For an instant, you are unsettlingly close to the truly dysfunctional mother and you see the dangerously fragile state that she must teeter in and how damaging she is to her children. I try to write about my ugly truths because the scariest part is thinking that these complications are mine, alone. And I write about them to reconcile the tensions I experience in opposing directions - away from my children and towards them, the latter ultimately that much stronger. And I write predominantly to other women, because I know I will find wholeness and authenticity when I hear their own truths spoken back to me.